At least from a career standpoint, I don't know if I feel more sorry for James Dean or, well, anyone else in this film who isn't James Dean. Forget east of Eden, just about everyone else's careers went south after this film. Okay, maybe the supporting cast didn't fall that fast, though they didn't really take off all that much after this film film, and all the while, James Dean didn't do but three roles that weren't uncredited bit parts before he died, and people are still talking about him, or at least about how he always looked so tired all the time. Well, to be fair, he did do some pretty good films, and he was really good in them, with this film being no exception, though what else would you expect from the director of "A Streetcar Named Desire" and... "The Last Tycoon"? Okay, I can think of some people who would say that we can just forget about that and just leave with our fond memories of Elia Kazan, of which, there are plenty, if you can remember them in the first place. A good bit of Kazan's work hasn't really stuck in everyone's memory banks all that deeply, yet the people who do remember his work can tell you that this film was certainly something to behold, being a classic masterpiece. To those people, I say shut up you annoying nostalgiacs, because while this film is good, it's not that good, being an Eden held back by a few corrupting snakes.
The film hits its slower spots, though rarely, if ever to a terribly dull degree, and what slow spots the film does hit are few and far between. However, were slowness more prevalent, it would most likely still be among the least of this film's worries, because the biggest blow to this film is that it is structurally all over the place. Now, the story isn't a total mess, with most everything scattered everwhere in the most unkept and uneven of fashions, yet the film is still quite uncomfortable in a lot of key places in its progression. Certain turns in storyline or focus are jarring and sudden, lacking enough time for you to fully lock into the situation, thus leaving the film a tad disengaging here and there, while other certain sudden shifts - particularly when it comes to characters - render the film a tad hard to follow. Still, it all comes down to long lines of non-oomph, with the film not really falling all that limp, though not really taking off that far when it does finally pick up. For all extents and purposes, this should be just another average film that rests among the workmanlike pile of films that have earned notoriety, mainly because of the stars who head. However, this film is better than that, perhaps falling a bit too limp at points, though not to where it completely falls out of being genuinely good, being made so by quite a few aspects that are mostly subtle, yet make quite a difference.
Okay, now, maybe Ted D. McCord's cinematography doesn't necessarily make quite a difference, as it is only occasionally outstanding, yet when it does stand out, it's pretty impressive. Early on in the film, a scene in which James Dean's Cal Trask character is made to read excerpt from the Bible is riddled with very cleverly staged and lit camera shots that really capture the hint of bleakness in the air that reflects our characters and really sets up the themes of the film, in which you can find quite a few other fancy and effective shots of this nature. Still, again, these fine shots are too sporadic to stick a landing as a key strength to telling this story, so in order for this film to really be good, it's just got to be a good story. Well, sure enough, while the story structure is very messy, the overall product presented is generally compelling, with intriguing themes and concepts that help keep it afloat, yet not without the help of some upstanding performances. Sure, Julie Harris is pretty bad, when not simply mediocre, yet most everyone else is engagingly charismatic, though there are some standouts, such as Jo Van Fleet, whose surprisingly fairly subtle and thoughtful portrayal of an untrusting and very business-oriented woman facing the risk of changing tremendously when considerably grand events and discoveries begin to fall into her life makes her among your more compelling aspects to the film. As for James Dean, with all of my joking around about how he's become such a big icon, even with his paper-slim filmography, he got those Oscar nominations and all of this notoriety for a reason, as he was the original great actor to lose young, something made clear very early on in the film as he very charismatically, yet ever so believably manages to nail the ticks and eccentricities of such a disturbed and clearly unhealthy person like the Cal Trask character in a fashion that definately leaves you aware that our lead is not all there, yet still has enough competence in him to hold layers. Well, sure enough, while the writing leaves those layers to jar in on occasion, Dean never lets up on making the complexities within his character very organic, presenting a person who is well-intentioned and reasonably competent, even with his problems, looking for self-value and respect as a good man, thus making for a very restrained, yet very engrossing lead performance that stands as further testament to just what we miss about the late, great Mr. Dean.
Overall, outside of a few slow spots, the real blow to the film is its structural messiness, from jarring story shifts to sudden character changes, that leave the film a bit hard to follow and often rather disengaging, while long periods of limited oomph leave the film to run the risk of descending to simply average, yet it manages to its own, secured by occasions of clever cinematography and consistency in story compellingness, really brought to life by generally strong performances, the strongest of which being delivered by the late, great James Dean, whose layered, subtle and enthralling lead performance helps in ultimately making "East of Eden" a mostly intriguing study on morality and value.
3/5 - Good