Directed by: ELIA KAZAN
1955, TSPDT Rank #544
East of Eden is an ambitious Hollywood adaptation of John Steinbeck's career-defining novel about a conflict between fathers and sons which unfolds across multiple generations. Elia Kazan's film adaptation only tackles roughly the final third of the novel, which diminishes the story's scope but allows Kazan to evoke a melodramatic effect out of some of the novel's more minute details instead of attempting to capture the entire narrative arc of Steinbeck's novel. However, the introduction of James Dean in his first starring role has made this film almost as legendary as the novel.
Dean is extremely expressive throughout the film, both physically and emotionally, becoming a sort of walking id exploding into the often predictable world of 1950s Hollywood. Most people who comment on this film see Dean's presence in the film as being overpowering and out of control. But his performance can also be seen as the cinematic equivalent of Elvis Presley's infamous performance on The Ed Sullivan Show - an uninhibited and infectious clarion call signaling the dawning of a new era. Without him, the film might have risked becoming an above-average melodrama with a cast of well-trained actors, but with Dean in the lead role, it became a flawed but powerful suggestion of what screen acting could be. He brought submerged feelings to the surface and used Hollywood sets as a platform for the exorcism of personal demons. It's a startling performance, but one which rings true nevertheless. Dean would refine his abilities in his next two films (Rebel Without a Cause and Giant), but East of Eden allows viewers today to see the raw, unpolished potential that he exhibited in his first major film role.