East Of Eden 1955
The last time I saw East Of Eden in a movie theatre was maybe 7 or 8 years ago when I rushed like a crazy person to an early screening at the Film Forum. I was disappointed with the print; it looked washed out and dreary. I of course watched the film, but I kept playing with the imaginary knobs to deepen the colors. I am spoiled like many by the digital revolution and all the brilliant restorations that are being done for classics and not so classic films. Even at the Moma the prints tend to look shabby and run down, the worst being a recent viewing of the Herzog film Aquire the Wrath of God, which the moma in its on screen notes warned us that the print was terrible and it was. So I’m pleased that the 2-disc restoration of Eden put out by Warner Brothers looks great. It helps that I have a 40inch big screen TV and I would urge any cinemphiles out there to get themselves one of these things.
This is a tremendous work of art one of the great films certainly of the 50’s for many reasons but especially for the great performance by James Dean, whose first film this was. His influence on screen acting was profound, as deeply felt and ingrained as James Cagney’s towering performance in Public Enemy some 25 years before which also changed film acting up to that time, and maybe forever.
An ironic note is that Cagney was along with Dean nominated for best actor Oscars that year, both of them losing to a heavy set actor playing a sad sack of a butcher from the Bronx. The academy probably thought that Dean would be around for many years and they had plenty of time to honor him. The director Elia Kazan just off his big hit Oscar win from the year before for “On The Waterfront” was generally thought of as an urban director with strong theatrical credentials, but in this film he shows he knew how to use the wide screen and his pictorial sense is superb.
He commands the screen placing people in landscapes as a train rolls by (taking our breath away) and along with some other mavericks at the time including Sam Fuller and Nicholas Ray showed just how great the wide screen was and how to use it to the fullest. The rest of the cast is also fine with Jo Van Fleet in her brief but brilliant Oscar winning turn as the missing mother turned bordello Madame. This is great acting just watching her walk down the street wrapped in dark fabrics is a master class in acting. Also Julie Harris, a very young and beautiful Lois Smith and a big surprise for me this time was how good Richard Davalos as Aron was. This is a subtle performance and his final scene always sends shocks and sorrow down and around me. Then there is Raymond Massey, Abe Lincoln himself who hated Dean and their scenes together are real and reverting especially the birthday party that reduces me to tears every time I’ve seen this film. Needless to say though that the film belongs to Dean, who as I said influenced movie acting, which can still be felt to this day. Yes I know Brando (his performance in On The Waterfront is arguably the greatest male performance in the history of film) but by 1955 he was 31 and his monumental work was finished and his flabby floating wasted days were upon us. Based on the 2nd half of the book by John Steinbeck and with a great memorable score by Leonard Rosenman and the vivid and beautiful cinematography is by Ted McCord. It’s the Bible baby, it’s the Bible.