"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."