The last of James Dean’s three classic films to get a 4K UHD release, East of Eden gave the moviegoing public its first real glimpse of the soon-to-be legendary star. Director Elia Kazan’s excellent film only depicts a portion of John Steinbeck’s acclaimed novel, but does so with sensitivity and grace. Warner’s beautiful 4K UHD transfer with HDR far surpasses the previous Blu-ray and a Dolby Atmos track punches up the audio, but dropping almost all the Blu-ray extras is a blow to fans. Despite that blunder, the disc comes Highly Recommended.
Actor. Icon. Legend. Rebel. Though James Dean may have achieved in death far more than he ever did during his short, fast-lane life, he nevertheless made an indelible imprint on the American consciousness, striking a chord with a restless, disaffected youth desperate for a poster boy. Cool yet introverted, tortured, and wild, Dean was a jumble of contradictions, an enigma, and in the almost seven decades since his death in an automobile accident at the tender age of 24, we have yet to solve him. And so his legend grows.
Dean only starred in three films during a brief 16-month span - East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant (all of which are now available in 4K UHD editions) - but his raw talent and innate magnetism captured the collective imagination of audiences everywhere. Combining child-like innocence and heartbreaking sincerity with unbridled rage and shameless emotional displays, Dean tore up the screen, acting with a fearless vigor and piercing intensity that remain captivating, even when his choices backfire. What boggles the mind is that he made such a monumental and lasting impact with such a small body of work. Marilyn and Elvis toiled for years before achieving the level of immortality Dean gained in the blink of an eye.
Was he a great actor? I'd say no. But he was an intuitive, highly creative actor who took chances and blazed a trail for a more naturalistic style of performing. When evaluated next to fellow 1950s rebels Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, Dean is the weakest member of the trio, yet he was also the youngest and least polished. Who knows what he might have attained had he lived, how his range might have expanded, and how he might have evolved personally had that fateful car not turned in front of his speeding Porsche on that lonely stretch of California highway on September 30, 1955. Would Dean have continued to reach dizzying heights or would he have crashed and burned like so many other shooting stars who rocketed to fame only to see their careers spontaneously combust?
East of Eden was the movie that launched Dean and the only one of his three pictures to be released while he was still alive. Based on a portion of John Steinbeck's bestselling novel of family secrets, sibling rivalry, and parental neglect, East of Eden updates the Cain and Abel story of brotherly discord, shifting the locale to California's Salinas Valley and chronicling the turbulent relationship between a father, Adam Trask (Raymond Massey), and his two sons on the eve of America's entry into World War I. Aron (Richard Davalos) is the "good" son - responsible, mature, upstanding - and Cal (Dean) is supposedly the bad seed - wild, impetuous, ornery - who takes after his free-spirited mother (Jo Van Fleet) who abandoned the family when the boys were toddlers and now runs a house of ill repute in nearby Monterey.
Years ago, Adam told Aron and Cal their mother had died, but as the film opens, Cal has discovered she's very much alive and seeks her out, much to the bitter woman's displeasure. Alienated from his father, yet still desperate for his affection, respect, and acknowledgment, Cal courts both his parents in an effort to gain some measure of self-discovery, all while harboring jealousy and resentment toward the favored Aron and his fresh-faced girlfriend, Abra (Julie Harris), who fears Cal, but is inexorably drawn to him.
Emotional and melodramatic, yet plagued by a nagging stiffness in tone that may be a holdover from Steinbeck’s novel, East of Eden cogently examines a number of potent themes - family dynamics, crippling insecurities, desperation, coming of age, and the transformative power of love. Director Elia Kazan employs off-kilter camera angles to show the imbalance in human relationships and depicts subtle shifts in attitude and outlook with a keen perception. He also takes full advantage of the CinemaScope canvas, providing sweeping vistas that highlight the fertility of the Salinas Valley and lend it a Garden of Eden-like beauty.
Kazan's stylish direction and Paul Osborn’s lyrical screenplay both earned Oscar nods and Dean received the first-ever posthumous Best Actor Oscar nomination for a portrayal that’s both brilliant and overdone. His subtle moments outshine his brazen emotional outbursts and he creates a lovely chemistry with Harris, who conveys a very appealing quiet tenderness. Though she’s too old to play the teenage Abra, Harris beautifully captures the girl’s youthful spirit and her interactions with Dean toward the end of the film brim with a heartbreaking sensitivity that's supremely affecting.
Massey sinks his teeth into the cold, pious Adam and Davalos, who beat out a young Paul Newman for the role of Aron, files a natural performance that would have received more recognition were it not for Dean’s substantial aura. Fleet won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in her film debut as the shrewd, independent mother determined to live life on her own terms, no matter who she hurts, including herself. She only has a couple of scenes, but she makes every moment count.
East of Eden starts slow, but builds to a stirring climax. Though it stands on its own as a well-made, literate film that intimately connects with audiences, it's most noteworthy for spawning and showcasing Dean's misunderstood, malcontented, and rebellious on-screen persona, an anti-establishment image that would carry through his next two pictures, capture the imagination of a troubled generation, and define his legacy. It's not as cool as Rebel Without a Cause or as epic as Giant, but East of Eden still wields power and examines timeless, relatable themes that touch every generation.
Vital Disc Stats: The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
East of Eden arrives on 4K UHD packaged in a standard case. A leaflet containing a code for the Movies Anywhere digital copy is tucked inside the front cover. (Unlike Rebel Without a Cause, there's no sleeve and no Blu-ray edition of the film.) Video codec is 2160p/HEVC H.265 with HDR and default audio is Dolby Atmos. (A DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track is also included.) Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
The 2160p/HEVC H.265 transfer with HDR seems to have been struck from the same master as the 2013 Blu-ray, but boy does it look a whole lot better! I was quite impressed with the 1080p transfer when I reviewed it a decade ago, although I remarked on its muted colors. HDR has solved that issue in a big way, bringing a lushness and intensity to the hues that match the story’s fertile emotions. The sea of yellow flowers that engulf Dean and Harris is absolutely breathtaking, and there’s a night-and-day difference between the fields of green crops and heads of lettuce in the 4K transfer versus its Blu-ray counterpart. (They actually look green instead of a wan olive color.) The blue sky is bolder, the red accents pop, and the pink pastels of cotton candy are truer. The red, white, and blue balloons during the parade sequence grab attention and flesh tones look more natural, too.
Clarity and contrast are of course more pronounced, and grain is as well. Solid backgrounds appear slightly noisy at times, but not enough to mar the image, and the overall picture looks brighter, warmer, and exudes more depth. Blacks are rich, the well-defined whites are crisp, and superior shadow delineation heightens the impact of nocturnal scenes and adds tension to murky interiors. Costume textures, like the weave of Dean’s pullover sweater, and wood grains are more distinct, while sharp close-ups beautifully render facial blemishes, stubble, and wrinkles.
The source material is spotless, and though a few scenes exhibit some softness and transitions can be a bit rough, neither dampen the viewing experience. If you're an East of Eden fan, you'll be thrilled with this 4K UHD upgrade.
Warner has upped the audio ante, replacing the 5.1 track on the Blu-ray with a Dolby Atmos mix. Surround activity remains faint at best, but the boost in fidelity and tonal depth is quite noticeable, adding extra oomph and sweep to Leonard Rosenman’s memorable score. Just listen to the overture and you’ll instantly notice a wider dynamic scale that gives the music plenty of room to breathe. Subtleties like chirping birds, faint breezes, footsteps, and rustling brush are more distinct, and sonic accents like barking dogs, train whistles, and shattering glass are more pronounced. Some palpable stereo separation across the front channels expands the soundscape, all the dialogue - even Dean’s palpable mumbles - are easy to comprehend, and no age-related hiss, pops, or crackle intrude. As a bonus, the original theatrical audio is also included as a sound option.
Here's where Warner really drops the ball. When the studio released Rebel Without a Cause on 4K UHD a few months ago, the original Blu-ray disc that housed the substantial supplemental package was included in the set. Sadly, WHV decided against that practice with East of Eden, most likely to cut costs. While it's true that no one who has the capability to screen the film in 4K UHD would ever watch the far less vibrant and colorful Blu-ray, those who admire the movie and its cast would certainly revisit the extras, which include an hour-long Dean documentary, a featurette about the making of East of Eden, a screen test with Dean and Davalos, wardrobe tests, deleted scenes, TV coverage of the film's premiere, and the original trailer. That's quite a bounty, so if any of that matters to you, you'll have to hang onto your Blu-ray disc. Unfortunately, those new to East to Eden who only purchase this edition won't get to see them. The only extra ported over is the audio commentary described below.
Audio Commentary - Film critic and historian Richard Schickel recorded this thoughtful, well-spoken, and informative commentary that combines trivia and anecdotes about the film with a cogent story analysis for the 2013 Blu-ray. Schickel terms East of Eden one of the first movies to explore the breach between adolescents and adults and praises Kazan, whom he calls "a manipulative director," for his clever use of CinemaScope and effective shot compositions. He also notes how the film fits in with Kazan's theme of profiling outsiders and how the director's stylishness helps redeem the movie, which he often finds overly melodramatic. Schickel even criticizes the climactic scene and Dean's performance in it, but also praises the young actor on many occasions. I've listened to many Schickel commentaries, which run the gamut from excellent to mediocre, and this is one of his better efforts. Fans of the picture will definitely find it worthwhile.
My appreciation for East of Eden grows with each viewing, and Warner’s stunning 4K UHD upgrade with HDR and a Dolby Atmos track make it especially easy to revere director Elia Kazan’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s immortal novel this time around. Though dropping the Blu-ray extras dulls my enthusiasm for this release, the high-quality video and audio certainly make an upgrade worthwhile for fans of Dean and classic cinema. Highly Recommended.