East of Eden (Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray)

Two brothers in 1910s California struggle to maintain their strict, Bible-toting father's favor as an old secret about their long-absent mother comes to light.

August 3, 2023 8 Min Read

Review by: Matt Malouf

Plot: What’s it about?

The first of James Dean three film legacy, East of Eden is also the only one of Dean’s films released before his death on September 30th, 1955. Dean stars as Cal Trask. He tries desperately to win the love of his father, Adam (Raymond Massey) who seems to strongly favor his brother Aron (Richard Davolos). The film takes place in 1917 in Salinas. As the film begins, we see Cal following a woman. He follows her for what seems like several miles until he’s told that she doesn’t want to be bothered. His father has lied to the two brothers, telling them that the mother died when they were young. This role must’ve hit close to home for Dean, who’s very own mother died at a young age. Cal is always getting on his father’s nerves. He is asked to read entire bible scriptures at the dinner table and it’s clear that his father does not care for him by the way he talks about him to his friends and such. The dad runs a vegetable shipping business that eventually collapses. Cal sees this as the perfect opportunity to finally win over his father’s love. He borrows $5,000 and turns it into a successful business. He can grow beans with a strong turnaround rate. After all his hard work all Cal wants is for his father to be happy with him. His father still doesn’t approve, and this leads to one of the film’s most effective sequences in which he confronts his father. Not everything works in the film. Some moments are a bit too heavy-handed and forced. The scenes with Cal and his father are effective, but the film does try a bit too hard to show that Aron is the favored child. I think a more subtle approach would’ve worked better. Still, that’s a minor complaint and it isn’t a huge flaw. Another minor issue is the film’s score. At times, it’s just a bit too much. It doesn’t help that it’s vamped up most of the time. Again, this is only a minor issue. Julie Harris stars as Aron’s girlfriend, Abra. She eventually forms a relationship with Cal. Julie Harris died this past August and surely the memory of working with James Dean was one she cherished greatly. The two of them share many great scenes and have nice chemistry together. There’s quite a bit of tension throughout the film with the characters and their relationships. I cared about the people in the film, and it held my interest throughout its running time. The film holds up remarkably well almost 60 years since its debut.

In 2009 I recall reading that a remake of East of Eden was in the works. I am not sure if the project was postponed or put off all together, but I can only hope it’s the latter. Hollywood is all too eager to remake classic films (especially recently) and Eden is an easy target. The film works just fine as it is. I won’t say it’s perfect by any means, but what film truly is perfect? The most important thing is the central role of Cal Trask. James Dean is an icon and for good reason. There’s not a single actor today that could make quite an impression like him. Also, I can picture (though I don’t want to) the melodrama being pushed to the max if a remake is ever made. The film works because it treats its premise with respect and doesn’t try to lessen it with plot twists among other things. The folks at Warner Brothers must’ve heard my cries. I always wondered why it took so long for James Dean’s films to be released on the HD format. I am also glad that they’ve given us Blu-ray book packaging. These are a great companion piece to films and provide interesting background notes. James Dean was often said to have provoked the people he worked with to add to the performance. There was much made about the relation between he and Raymond Massey and some tension on the set. This only works in the films favor as it makes the relation between the two that much more authentic. For fans of James Dean, picking up this set is an easy call.

Video: How’s it look?

Here is what the big draw will be for consumers. Or at least, the area of most interest. I felt the Blu-Ray disc from 2013 looked just fine, but the 4K UHD does improve things ever so slightly. I will confess that I haven’t fully jumped on the 4K bandwagon just yet. That is when it comes to discs. I find live streaming TV in 4K to be my preference, but the discs often look too dark for my liking. I realize this may appear more cinematic, but it just doesn’t work for me like it does for others. With that being said, I feel that East of Eden is an exception to that rule. There are some soft shots here, and at times it can certainly feel like an upscaled image, but overall, it simply improves on the already strong previous transfer we’ve had. The image is 2.55:1, with a lot of attention to detail. Colors appeared richer and more vibrant. I even noticed a spot on Dean’s pants in an early scene that I don’t recall seeing before. I think viewers will appreciate the visuals here.

Audio: How’s it sound?

We have a Dolby Atmos track here as well as a DTS 2.0 one. I opted for the former, and I found it impressive given the film at hand. For a film from the 1950’s that is primarily a dialogue driven one, we shouldn’t expect something very bombastic and intrusive, but that’s more than OK. There’s clarity and the appropriate range when needed. Like the improved transfer, I feel viewers will be pleased with this track. Having the other audio option is a nice touch as well.

Supplements: What are the extras?

  • Audio Commentary – Featuring film critic Richard Schickel. This is a decent track, but still worth a listen for the fun tidbits and what not.

The Bottom Line

East of Eden is easily recommended and it’s a film that only grows on me with repeated viewings. It’s entirely up to the individual if the upgrades specs are enough to justify purchasing either for the first time or second (or even third). I do recommend this set, but not having the extras is disappointing. So, with that caveat in mind, do as you please.

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