In the Californian town of Monterey, local madam Kate (Jo Van Fleet) is placing her latest profits in the bank, and very abrupt with the staff with it. She hurries from the place, heading back to her brothel, but does not notice a young man following her all the way, keeping his distance and trying not to be spotted until he sees her enter the building. But he has been noticed, and Kate sends her bouncer (Timothy Carey) out to remonstrate with him after the boy tosses a stone at the wall. He is persuaded to leave, but he is preoccupied with Kate - because he is Cal (James Dean), and she is his estranged mother...
Funny thing about James Dean, as for decades hardly anyone had a bad word to say about his overemotional method of acting that proved so groundbreaking and such an influence not only on the actors who followed, but on the type of films that were made, as if moviemakers were keen to capture some of that screen lightning to work its magic in their own productions. But now, opinion is more divided: was Dean one of the greatest actors of his generation cut down too soon, or was he a chronic overactor who even more than Marlon Brando came to define all that was undisciplined about the thespian craft?
Certainly in East of Eden, the film he made his initial big screen impact with after a handful of bit parts, can either have its viewers brought to tears by the force of Dean's performance, or alternatively roll their eyes at his histrionics. But he was no amateur, he knew what he was doing and was highly intuitive about how to win over the audience of his day in starkly vulnerable readings of his roles. Nowhere was that better seen than here, where in a host of traditional, forceful performances, he stood out as someone who did not fit in with them, someone to be pitied even as he struggled to define himself and came up not liking what he found as he did so.
Based on the latter part of John Steinbeck's novel (Steinbeck was reputedly delighted with what they came up with), this was a variation on the Biblical Cain and Abel tale only updated to 1917, where America was entering the First World War and Cal's family are not so keen to get involved. In truth, the parallels with the scripture were less than convincing here, no fault of the cast, but more the fault of the adaptation, which never built up the drama to the epic, world-defining heights that the chief influence would. Our Adam is, er, Adam (Raymond Massey), the father who neglects Cal to nurture his less problematic brother Aron (Richard Davalos, best known either for this or appearing on The Smiths' Strangeways Here We Come album cover).
Adam was rejected by Kate when the boys were very young, and Cal, seeing that he gets his rebellious streak from her side, identifies with this Eve character but finds he cannot get through to her any more than he can with his father. So this Cain is doomed before he can even think about lawbreaking, and actually goes out of his way to do right by his family: he's obsessed with winning his father's love, and thinks he can do it by helping to finance Adam's broke refrigeration business. To complicate matters, Cal has fallen for Aron's girlfriend Abra (top-billed Julie Harris, ten years too old for the role), and she is fighting to prevent her sympathy for him turning to romance.
As you can imagine, with everyone believing so much in the material, East of Eden emerged as a Very Important Work early on, not least because of Dean's newfound fame and swift, untimely demise, but it's pretty stodgy stuff as a result of the overplayed seriousness of tone thought to be required. Every frame is fairly heaving with significance and bone-deep angst, something director Elia Kazan only encourages with at times tricksy mannerisms, as if ordering the audience, "You WILL be affected by this!". The theme of rejection informs every aspect of the story, which can be wearing, although many find that the ulitmate expression of that - the birthday scene - unexpectedly moving. The debate about James Dean will rumble on, but watch this and you'll have some idea of why he was so admired. Plus you get to see him act opposite Carey, who was even more eccentric than he was. Music by Leonard Rosenman.