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East of Eden 4K

by Glenn Erickson Aug 01, 2023

Elia Kazan hits 4K with an extras-lean but visually stunning edition of this early CinemaScope feature, now rated ‘PG.’  It’s James Dean’s first and best starring role, and with Kazan in charge the actors push the ‘drama’ accelerator to the floor. It still holds up, with top-billed Julie Harris doing everything Dean does, but effortlessly and with no strings showing. Raymond Massey, Richard Davalos, Burl Ives and Albert Dekker are 100% solid. The great Jo Van Fleet is even moreso — she takes control of any film in which she appears. The classic adapts only a few chapters of John Steinbeck’s massive novel for an emotionally satisfying experience.


East of Eden 4K
4K Ultra HD + Digital Code

1955 / Color / 2:55 widescreen / 117 min. / Street Date August 1, 2023 / Available from MovieZyng Warehouse /33.99
Starring: Julie Harris, James Dean, Raymond Massey, Burl Ives,
Richard Davalos, Jo Van Fleet, Albert Dekker, Lois Smith, Harold Gordon, Nick Dennis, Barbara Baxley, Timothy Carey, Lonny Chapman, Franklin Farnum.
Cinematography: Ted McCord
Art Directors: James Basevi, Malcolm Bert
Costume Design: Anna Hill Johnstone
Film Editor: Owen Marks
Original Music: Leonard Rosenman
Screenplay by Paul Osborn from the novel by John Steinbeck
Produced and Directed by
Elia Kazan

The undying legend of James Dean almost completely overshadows the films he made. He worked with three top directors, was recognized as brilliant and was then was killed so suddenly that two of his three pictures, all Warners films, had to be released after his death. For quite a while it was presumed that, had Dean lived, he might have become the greatest actor of them all. Dean wasn’t around long enough to grow fat and contemptuous of movie stardom as did Marlon Brando, or to fall apart physically and psychologically like Montgomery Clift. His legacy comes with no mysteries or conspiracies attached, as happened with Marilyn Monroe. He’ll always be Peter Pan, never growing old, communicating youth and vitality.

But almost nobody has seen what James Dean did before the Big Three titles — from 1950 forward he was a constant presence on live TV, and he showed up in bit parts in several movies, including a couple of titles directed by Samuel Fuller and Douglas Sirk. An excellent place to get to know that James dean is Michael J. Sheridan’s 2004 documentary James Dean Forever Young. The performer in those clips is a good commercial bet — a struggling actor with something to say.

 

Warners’ new East of Eden 4K goes the mainline route — it’s not a Warner Archive title. It’s still the same movie we know and admire, but home video addicts with fancy screening setups will be impressed. It carries a 5.1 soundtrack. Viewers hoping for a combo package with an additional Blu-ray won’t be as impressed. This edition is just the 4K disc, and a digital copy.  *

California’s sleepy Salinas Valley in 1917 harbors a brooding family drama. ‘Wild’ teenager Cal Trask (James Dean) lives with his widowed father Adam (Raymond Massey) and ‘good’ brother Aron (Richard Davalos). The inquisitive Cal hears rumors that his mother Kate (Jo Van Fleet) is still alive in Monterey. He hops a freight train and finds his way to her house — only to discover that it’s a house of prostitution. Seeking redemption in his father’s eyes, Cal enters a business partnership with Will Hamilton (Albert Dekker) to profit from the coming war. But nothing turns out as Cal plans, especially when Aron’s girlfriend Abra (Julie Harris) finds herself drawn to Cal’s side.

One of Elia Kazan’s better pictures, East of Eden has fine acting and direction that balance the story’s tendency toward heavy theatrics. A layer of expressive camerawork is present, in the fairly new anamorphic CinemaScope process. John Steinbeck’s novel hangs its allegorical framework out in the open, recreating the original dysfunctional family related in a few short lines in Genesis. Eve broke away from the Garden of Eden because she couldn’t stand being bossed and criticized by the self-righteous Adam, leaving him to raise two emotionally scarred boys. Abel/Aron questions nothing and is complacent in the knowledge that he’s superior to his wild brother Cain/Cal. Cal’s agony is his awareness of the lost family and his inability to connect with his disapproving father.

 

That East of Eden doesn’t collapse under this Biblical weight is remarkable. Its characters are thoughtful and well-rounded, aware that the labels they assign to themselves and each other are limiting and deceptive. Aron feels strong but doesn’t realize how much he depends on certain assumptions — the righteousness of his father, the presumed love of Abra. For her part, Abra doubts her own virtue when she realizes she wants something less confining than what Aron has to offer. Cal is in no way innocent — we see hints that his time away from home is spent misleading the local girls, one or two of whom are seen hovering about him. He tricks the barmaid Anne (the interesting Lois Smith) into leading him to his mother.

The elder Adam has a pompous side, yet he wavers under harsh reminders of his fallibility. The failure of his refrigeration experiment is a disappointment, and his job at the draft board curbs his interest in standing in judgment over people. Finally, the revelation of past secrets delivers the final blow to Adam’s carefully tended self-image.

The richness of pre- WW1 agricultural California places the tale in a handsome Americana setting. The richly drawn characters transcend what could easily have become stagey, word-heavy. Kazan’s direction emphasizes the spaces between words, the reaction of characters on the side and the visual context of each situation. When Cal runs out to cry under a tree the camera hangs back to show only his feet under the ‘weeping’ willows. When Abra joins him, she affirms her shift of loyalty. Is every act of love, a betrayal?

 

East of Eden is the logical precursor to James Dean’s ’50s teen-angst picture with Nicholas Ray, Rebel without a Cause. The year 1917 is half a century before ‘teenagers’ were invented — young people in a prosperous economy, with discretionary money to spend and an urge to experiment with adult behavior. Cal’s adult-oriented problems are the center of the story. The censors keep Kate’s fallen women off-screen, but the nature of her business is abundantly clear. Other indicators of the character of the times are equally true to Steinbeck’s vision. The residents of Salinas are largely well-to-do Anglos surrounded by Mexican-American, Italian and ‘Portugee’ immigrant laborers. The enlistment parade stresses jingoistic xenophobia, when the German-American shoe repairman Gustav (Harold Gordon) is suddenly no longer a beloved neighbor, but an enemy Hun who ‘doesn’t feel sorry enough.’

 

The story holds up Cal as a very flawed individual. He is not played as a diamond in the rough, with an innate sense of right and wrong. It is the idealistic Aron who knows instinctually that the patriotic war parade is essentially wrong — that its purpose is to mobilize hatred. Father Adam would likely applaud Aron’s effort to be peaceful, and condemn Cal’s leap into the fray — Cal defends Gustav not on principle, but a personal connection.

The only thing that can tame the mob is Sam the Sheriff (Burl Ives). Sam knows that there’s no turning the tide of bigotry. A sheriff in Elia Kazan’s later Wild River does much the same thing — when confronting a Lynch mob that has already committed obvious felonies, he just advises the perpetrators that it’s getting late, and they ought to go home.

Cal’s dilemma is exacerbated by bad timing and rash decisions, admittedly rationed out for theatrical effect. Kate’s horror just at the moment of accepting her son is heartbreaking. Cal and Aron struggle is a tangle of misconceptions, and even the insightful Abra doesn’t have the full picture. There’s no simple way to assign blame. Cal didn’t create the emotional calamity that sends his brother off to war, with his iffy chance for return symbolized by a literal collar of jagged glass. The potential for disaster was already there in the lies of the father, to be ignited by Cal’s search for truth and acceptance.

 

The press singled out John Sturges’ crowd-pleasing Bad Day at Black Rock for its intelligent ‘graphic’ use of the extra-wide CinemaScope screen format. But East of Eden is equally creative, and adds an emotional element to the compositions. Kazan and cameraman Ted McCord use the ‘scope camera as if it were a flat lens. They go in for extreme close-ups, and avoid compositions that simply spread people horizontally across the ‘scope screen. Cramped interiors are compositionally ‘broken up’ — areas of darkness mask the frame, as in the corridor to Kate’s room. Kazan has no problem stylizing the frame for a purpose, as when he darkens areas of the image for the first shot of the enlistment parade.

Only the tilted ‘Dutch’ angles in some of the emotional dialogue scenes now feel a bit forced. There is also a dizzying single shot of Cal swinging where the camera swings with him, which also seems ill advised. It’s too flashy — maybe it was Kazan and Ted McCord’s response to front-office advice to ‘tame things down a bit.’

East of Eden maintains an emotional temperature several degrees higher than the average film drama. Dean’s teenaged mannerisms and adolescent slouching befit a restless kid unable to relax even for a minute. Followers of method acting lump Brando, Clift and Dean together, but we never saw enough of Dean’s range. His Jett Rink in Giant transforms into a strange proto-Howard Hughes type that isn’t all that successful. Would Dean have found himself limited to the same kinds of neurotics?  That’s something we’ll never know.

 

Top-billed Julie Harris equals Dean for sensitive vulnerability. I haven’t seen many female characters in movies successfully change affections from one brother to another, while retaining our respect and approval. We don’t approve because Dean is the star, either. Cal is just more likeable than Aron, and Abra is naturally drawn to needy types. Abra’s greatest fulfillment is when she mediates between Cal and his father. Harris doesn’t let the moment degenerate into grandstanding emotionalism. When Harris’ face moves from elation to despair, our personal reaction follows.

The acting style of James Dean clashed with that of old-school actor Raymond Massey, the kind of actor-orator who had difficulty going beyond his two or three ways of playing a scene. In East of Eden Massey is both more subdued and more forceful than usual. Whatever shake-up or insecurity the new approach caused, Kazan apparently thought it would have an interesting effect on Massey’s playing. That the grand old actor should find himself on the defensive with the method mania was likely a Kazan tactic to heighten the tension.

The commanding presence of Jo Van Fleet invites a comparison with her role in Kazan’s Wild River, in which she dons old age makeup to play an elderly pioneer women just as bitter and spiteful. Intriguingly, East of Eden seems to have made an impression on another native Californian, writer-director Sam Peckinpah. Salinas and Monterey of 1917 are only a decade or two past the Wild West days. Steinbeck’s Sam the Sheriff behaves as if he might have known Peckinpah’s Steven Judd, the lawman who supposedly ‘cleaned up’ Monterey.

 


 

Warner Brothers’ 4K Ultra HD + Digital Code of East of Eden 4K gives this well-regarded show a top-notch presentation. Old prints and early encodings retained a faded, reddish hue over the whole movie. The 2013 Blu-ray was a big improvement but still had a tinge of ‘Warnercolor Red’ on some exteriors. The colorization tools available now seem to have eliminated the faded look — in 4K the image is much sharper but also richer in color and contrast. Exteriors were shot on days that ranged from bright to overcast, and the difference between the environments is more evident. In one scene, we can ‘feel’ the shadows thrown by moving clouds of smoke. The images are really impressive — the grab-bag of photos here in no way represents the rich color on the disc.

The show is presented at its original aspect ratio. Ted McCord’s camera crew must have spent time testing adjustments on the C’Scope lens adapter, for the field only shows a bit of warpage when the camera pans. We only see a touch of the C’Scope Mumps here and there. Is it possible that tricks were used to correct offending shots?

The dynamic sound mix showcases Leonard Rosenman’s active score, with its down-homey main theme. Even in mono, Warners mixes from this time were always rich and brassy. The only thing in the soundtrack that sounds artificial is the dubbed re-voicing of the mumbling Timothy Carey as Kate’s bouncer Joe.

I was told once that the three-minute Overture was used only for a special screening in New York. I was also told that it’s actually a music bed orchestrated and recorded specifically for the film’s trailer.

I’d point curious readers to hear the trailer soundtrack for themselves, but this extras-lean disc has only an older commentary by Richard Schickel. Warners didn’t make this a 4K-Blu-ray combo, just the 4K and the code for the Digital version. We like the new cover art, a B&W photo given tints. It’s a fresh image for this deserving classic.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


East of Eden 4K
4K Ultra HD + Digital Code rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent English Dolby Atmos, original theatrical; + French, German, Italian, Castillian & Latino Espanol
Supplements: Commentary by Richard Schickel.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (+ many foreign languages)
Packaging: One 4K Ultra HD + Digital Code in Keep case
Reviewed:
July 14, 2023
(6964eden)

*  I had a curbside talk with some thirty-something neighbors about a year ago, a couple of whom identified themseles as ‘in the industry.’ When it leaked out that I collect Blu-rays one of them rolled his eyes. He gets ‘lots of industry product’ but has no use for discs. He logs the digital copies and tosses the discs away.

I couldn’t resist saying that he should give his hard media copies to someone who cares about movies. Digital access can be withdrawn at any time, while I’m already holding many OOP discs of movies that in some cases are now difficult to see … But only if you really care about having access to old movies.CINESAVANT

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Text © Copyright 2023 Glenn Erickson

About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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Anonymous

James Dean’s acting “showed it’s strings”? What a pathetic remark. Just goes to show you. Genius is defined as never losing the power to threaten even after 60 years.

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[…] honors for the whole show go to recent supporting actress Oscar winner Jo Van Fleet.  ↘  As Doc Holliday’s girlfriend Kate Fisher, Van Fleet resembles old […]

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