Releasing alongside our previously reviewed Rio Bravo (1959), the WB100, 4K UHD edition of Elia Kazan’s East of Eden (1955) hit the streets on August 1st, 2023, and like Rio Bravo and many of the WB100 editions, it’s a perfect transfer of a great film and a sorry excuse for celebrating those two things.
Debuting the same piece of over-retouched key art on the front of the box and as the sole image in the menu, nothing could better illustrate the issue: it looks good, maybe better than ever before, but all the history has been sucked out of the release.
East of Eden is a great, complicated film. It’s an adaption of just one portion of the titular Steinbeck novel, directed by Elia Kazan, his third film since he turned stoolie on his liberal-minded Hollywood friends before McCarthy’s House Unamerican Activities Committee, and his first since he made a masterpiece, On the Waterfront (1954), that subtextually inverts its political reality to justify his actions. The film is one of its own moral miasmas, the story of two sons without a mother, vying like Cain and Able for the approval of their religious zealot of a father, and the eye of the same woman, set against the first World War and all the moral quandaries it brought with it. The star is James Dean, in his first film but second released credited feature film role, for which he would receive his first of two posthumous Best Actor nominations at the Academy Awards.
“Do you think I’m bad?”
The most written about, talked about actor of a generation, and contender for all time. One of the most controversial directors of Hollywood’s golden age, whose post-HUAC art should and must be informed by context due to his own explicit flaunting of the separation between art and artist. Adapting the work of one of America’s greatest novelists. And the only special feature is a commentary by the late-great film critic Richard Schickel, who also lends his voice to the only special feature on Rio Bravo, also a commentary.
The film even has Raymond Massey, the great character actor from A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Things to Come (1936), and Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), itself a Warner Brothers classic, and there’s no mini featurette about the man. Is it because Warner Brothers Discovery lent Janus Film’s Criterion Collection the Blu-ray rights to Arsenic and Old Lace last year and they don’t want to divert profit to a product they don’t receive full stake from? The Criterion disc is only a 2K copy of the recent 4K restoration, WBD could seemingly release their own 4K edition to cross-promote. There are several 2K films in the Criterion Collection with 4K editions by their primary owners. Are they afraid of discussing HUAC with the current generation of the Republican Party gearing up to do it all over again as they have to Bud Light and Target?
These would all be good thoughts, but by all appearances, the answer once again seems to be a prioritization of the cheap over the proper. Margin over quality.
Make no mistake, the restoration by Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation and Warner Bros. Post Production Creative Services: Motion Picture Imaging and Post Production Sound looked swell on my Sony XBR-65X850D 4K TV and LG-UBK90 4K Blu-ray Player (region free). So sharp and clear is the print that it even hurts the film a little, making Kazan’s use of re-written, re-dubbed lines more apparent than it would be on TV, VHS, DVD, or even a tired film print. It’s crisp as a good potato chip. And the colors, my god — no one shot a mountain-side town like cinematographer Ted D. McCord (The Sound of Music, The Treasure of Sierra Madre), matching that open blue sky with seaside waves of grass and salt-dusted shacks. The interiors bring a noir sensibility to color, the first dining room confrontation between Dean and Massey could hang in a museum, every frame. And the 4K UHD disk lets that contrast play out with a good dynamic range. The film comes in a 5.1 stereo mix that sounded great even on my 2.1 Soundbar+subwoofer setup, and, for accessibility, it includes English SDH, Français, and Español subtitles. There’s no 2K Blu-ray or DVD disc, but there is a digital code redeemable at Movies Anywhere.
The commentary, on the other hand, is good, not great. Without someone to bounce off of as he has on Rio Bravo, Schickel oscillates often in the commentary between “I like this part” and “I don’t like this part,” his feelings on the film being hard to pin down until the third act where he stops comparing his feelings to a contextless “other” and talks more resonantly about the film’s emotional core. He does however provide great tidbits of the goings on behind the scenes of the film, something sorely lacking in this edition, and posits that this may be the first cinemascope film to use canted angles. Who knows if that’s true; he certainly didn’t.
In Warner Brothers’s 2005 DVD and 2013 2K Blu-ray edition, the film came with the same commentary by Schickel; Forever James Dean (1988), an archival documentary about the actor; East of Eden: Art in Search of Life (2005), a documentary focused on the Steinbeck of it all; camera tests for James Dean and Richard Davalos (Cool Hand Luke, Kelly’s Heroes); wardrobe tests for most of the cast; deleted scenes; a video on the NYC premiere of the film; and a theatrical trailer. The edition included in the 2013 James Dean Ultimate Collector’s Collection also came with a digibook.
This 4K UHD release is the best way to see the film at home and one of the worst ways to learn anything about it or its creative voices. It’s a shame that Warner Brothers Discovery values its history this poorly. But that seems to be the studio’s main ethos these days.
Available on 4K UHD and digital August 1st, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Warner Bros. Pictures East of Eden webpage.
Final Score Breakdown:
Film: 4.5 out of 5.
Restoration: 4 out of 5.
4K UHD Release: 2.5 out of 5.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.