“East of Eden,” directed by Elia Kazan from Paul Osborn’s adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel, and Nicholas Ray’s “Rebel Without a Cause,” screen at the Nuart this week in a 50th anniversary double feature representing two-thirds of James Dean’s feature film work.
A Cain and Abel story set in Salinas and Monterey before and during World War I, “East” is not only one of Kazan’s richest films and Dean’s first significant role, it is also arguably the actor’s best performance.
Dean plays Cal Trask, the skittish-as-a-cat bad son, the lonely outsider who desperately wants the acceptance and love of his father, played by Raymond Massey, though he acts at times like he couldn’t care less. Cal’s transparent, unashamed anguish, his hunger for good words, reaches its climax in the celebrated scene in which, his birthday present for his father rejected, the son’s need and disappointment are so great he delivers a moan seemingly wrenched from his very soul. As Julie Harris’ Abra says in a scene, “It’s awful not to be loved. It’s the worst thing in the world.”
Helping make the Dean-Massey interaction the paradigmatic generational conflict in all of American film is the unhesitating way Kazan exploited the personal problems the actors had with each other. “This was an antagonism I didn’t try to heal; I aggravated it,” the director writes in his autobiography. “I didn’t conceal from Jimmy or from Ray what they thought of each other, made it plain to each of them. The screen was alive with precisely what I wanted: They detested each other.”
“Rebel Without a Cause,” Dean’s next film, this time under Ray’s florid direction, also dealt with the tortured relationship between parents and children, but in a more teen-centric way. The parents here, especially Jim Backus’ emasculated father, are portrayed as inept clowns whose persistent cluelessness forces the teenagers -- Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo -- to in effect form a cockeyed family.
Dean’s performance is not only billed above the title, it redeems the uncertainties of the rest of the film. Working from Stewart Stern’s sensitive screenplay, Dean, dressed in jeans, white T-shirt and bright red windbreaker (chosen after Warners switched from black and white to more upscale color), delivers another cry of pure anguish. When he pounds a desk in a police station scene so hard he had to be taken to a hospital after shooting, when he screams his trademark “You’re tearing me apart!” at his bickering parents, there can be no doubt that Dean is coming from the most real place in the entire film.
-- Kenneth Turan
“East of Eden,” PG for thematic elements and some violent content. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes. “Rebel Without a Cause,” PG-13 for some violence and thematic elements. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes. Exclusively at the Landmark Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A., (310) 281-8223.