Nine-tenths of James Dean's performance in "East of Eden" isn't in the screenplay.
As conceived it's already a strong part, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by John Steinbeck and helmed by one of one of the greatest directors of actors ever, Elia Kazan. Paul Osborn would receive an Academy Award nomination for his screenplay adaptation, as did Kazan.
But it'd Dean show, in every way that matters. His style of performance, along with Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and few others, more or less marks the transition to what I consider "modern" film acting. Previously most movie actors came up through the theater tradition, and were taught their performance had to be big and broad. They learned Shakespearean elocution and good posture. They still saw themselves as being on a stage, just with cameras and sound booms.
Actors were, literally, stiff.
"Real" actors didn't mumble, or stoop, or not look people in the eye. Similarly, the midcentury conception of ideal masculinity was John Wayne -- composed and remote. Yet here came Dean with his twitchy, emotionally raw turn in his very first film role. (After numerous small television roles.) He seems so uncomfortable and alienated, like he's literally about to shiver his way out of his skin
As Cal Trask, the wayward teenage son of a respected farmer in World War I-era California, Dean embodies the dark half of the parable of Cain and Abel. Cal has been raised without the respect or admiration of his stern father, Adam (Raymond Massey), which he instead bestowed on Cal's fraternal twin brother, Aron (Richard Davalos).
He's essentially a walking wound. I think of the little moments, the touches and quirks Dean infuses into every minute onscreen to convey Cal's vulnerability and multitudinous flaws.
Cal can be kind and empathetic one minute, petulant and just plain nasty the next. He blows like a zephyr, and Dean does, too.
When his dad loses his entire fortune on a risky gamble to preserve and ship lettuce using a crude form of refrigeration, Cal resolves to earn the money back by investing in bean commodities. With a $5,000 loan from his estranged mother -- more on her later -- he and a partner offer local farmers a premium to grow beans, knowing they'll prove a valuable, spoil-resistant crop as America is on the cusp of entering the war in Europe.
In a brief scene -- throwaway exposition, really -- Cal suddenly takes off on a spirited frolic/dance through a bean field. He's positively giddy at the prospect of growing in his father's admiration, much like those tiny sprouts. This, like a number of other key moments in "East of Eden," was pure improvisation by Dean. Kazan wisely kept his cameras rolling to see what would happen.
In the film's pivotal scene, when Cal offers the money to his father and it is rejected as foul war profiteering, the script called for the boy to turn his back and flee in anger. Instead, Dean broke down in a gush of tears and embraced Massey, almost clawing at him as if to wring the reluctant affection out of him. Massey, a decidedly traditional actor, could only stammer "Cal! Cal!" in shocked tones.
That electric combination of old and new methods of acting is a cinematic watershed moment.
I think, though, that my favorite moment in the film is much smaller and subtler. Cal is smitten with Abra (Julie Harris), the longtime girlfriend and presumed fiance of Aron. He doesn't want to betray his brother, but the weight of keeping his feelings repressed eventually becomes unbearable. He climbs up to her bedroom window in the middle of the night and enlists Abra's aid in preparing a surprise birthday party for his father.
Dean stares at her, and in the moonlight his face is the far prettier of the two. You can see all the pain and loneliness mirrored in his sad, tired eyes. He wants her, but can't say so. So there's a distance to his expression. He smiles shyly, and just for a second he rests his face against the window frame -- like he can't stand to hold up the charade.
Better than any single image I can summon, this frame captures the essence of what it's like to be a teenager.
The rest of the movie isn't quite as memorable as Dean's performance. It's a rather messy narrative, trying to wind big themes into a story that doesn't really add up to much. I don't envy Osborn ("The Yearling"), tasked with translating Steinbeck's sprawling novel into a two-hour film. All of the first half of the book about Adam's youth gets jettisoned, and much that remains is shifted around to place the spotlight on Cal.
Davalos as Aron doesn't get a lot to do, other than make an 11th hour conversion from perfect son to cackling loon. Abra is a more rounded character, and we get a glimpse of her life outside of the prism of her love triangle with two brothers. That's more than you can see about most female supporting characters (then or now).
I also appreciated Burl Ives as Sam the Sheriff, who sees himself as not just the law but the moral conscience of the town of Monterey. He steers Cal into more productive behavior, and puts down a bout of anti-German hysteria that could've turned into a riot with just a few glares and veiled pleasantries.
Jo Van Fleet is terrific as Kate, Cal and Aron's mother, who ran out on them as babes after shooting Adam when he tried to stop her because she couldn't bear the isolation and Bible-thumping of life on the ranch in Salinas. The boys believe her to be dead, but she's become a hard-bitten madame running a prosperous brothel in Monterey.
Cal follows her around like a lost puppy, eventually confronting her and getting her to loan him seed money for his bean scheme. He beholds himself in her, while Aron is more akin to their strict, God-fearing father.
Kate is both powerful and self-loathing, refusing to submit to any man's yoke but still hating what she's become. It's impressive work for Van Fleet, especially when you consider how little screen time she has -- really only two substantial scenes adding up to maybe five minutes. She won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her turn.
The cinematography is something to behold, and I'm surprised Ted McCord didn't get any notice from the Academy. Kazan was reputedly proud of his use of CinemaScope to capture the Western landscapes, in contrast with the tight urban spaces he was previously known for filming. My favorite shot is of the train bearing Adam Trask's lettuce shipment -- his dreams, really -- puffing away into the horizon. He ambles around the back of the station to watch it go, and unbeknownst Cal follows him, watching his father watch.
It beautifully encapsulates the entire father-son dynamic, with one's back turned to the other, not so much indifferent as unawares.
Kazan and McCord also used visual distortion a couple of times to wonderful effect, both during spats between Cal and Adam. One is when Adam is making Cal read from the Bible, not for enlightenment but as punishment; the other is when Cal jumps on a swing and leers at his father each time his momentum carries him near, spitting and taunting.
By zooming the wide lens in close they were able to get a bending effect in the corners, underlining the way the two men can't get their personalities to mesh. This is accented by tilting the camera mid-shot to give it a carnival funhouse effect. It's brilliant without feeling like the direction is intruding into the film.
The brevity of James Dean's career is an essential part of his iconography. "East of Eden" is his only film that came out while he was still alive; he never even got to see "Giant" or "Rebel Without a Cause," for which he would become the first posthumous Oscar acting nominee.
Rather than fretting about what might have been, we revel in a young performer's transformational journey that forever altered our conception of cinematic acting. There is before Dean, and after.