Thursday, March 04, 2010


James Dean made three big movies before his untimely death. I was not impressed with him in GIANT—he seemed in over his head, and part of the problem may have been with the handful of scenes in which his dialogue had to be dubbed in by another actor after his death. I have no desire to see REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE because it's become such an iconic film, I feel like have seen it and didn't like it (though since I rarely say "never," I might be talked into seeing it someday). That leaves this film, based on a John Steinbeck novel, itself seemingly based on the Cain and Abel story. Adam Trask (Raymond Massey) has two sons: Cal (James Dean) is the bad son--though he's not so much bad as ornery and misunderstood--and the polar opposite of his "good" twin brother Aron (Richard Davalos). The old man led the sons to believe that their mother died, but actually she lives in a nearby town as the prosperous madam of a brothel, a fact that Cal eventually uncovers, leading to an uncomfortable reunion. Adam sinks all of his money into an icehouse business, but it fails; Cal, trying to win his father’s favor, borrows money from Mom to start his own business (a bean farm); he prospers due to war shortages and is soon able to give his father his money back, but Adam proclaims it blood money and won’t take it. This incident triggers a vengeful act by Cal against both Adam and Aron.

The plot is pure soap opera but compelling enough—apparently, the film only uses the last third of the sprawling novel—and the acting all around is solid, with Massey taking the honors. Dean is good, though he truly seems to be in a completely different movie, with his Method-acting twitches, grimaces, and mumbles. These tricks certainly make Cal stand out against the more conventional characters, but the disconnect works against the romantic subplot, in which Cal woos Aron's girlfriend (Julie Harris); Harris is fine, but it's unclear what she sees in Cal—aside, of course, from his smoldering good looks. Jo Van Fleet won a Supporting Actress Oscar as the mother (good, but underused), and Burl Ives is fine as the sheriff. Even though he's a bit showoffy, I like Dean here and am sorry his career was cut so short. [TCM]

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