Dean is probably most famous for his performances in "Rebel Without a Cause" (1955) and "Giant" (1956), but those movies seem to me dated. In contrast, "East of Eden" still feels fresh to me, and I attribute that primarily to the fact that it was directed by Elia Kazan.
Kazan directed several outstanding films, and my favorites include "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1951) and "On the Waterfront" (1954). While I rate "East of Eden" a tick below these two great movies, I nonetheless consider it a splendid film.
The movie "East of Eden" is adapted from the sprawling 1952 John Steinbeck novel with the same title. However, the film takes its story almost entirely from the last third of the book and telescopes incidents so they all occur in 1917, setting the domestic drama against the backdrop of the United States becoming a combatant in World War I.
The movie takes place chiefly in Salinas, California, an agricultural town roughly a hundred miles south of San Francisco. That's where angst-ridden young Cal (James Dean) and his priggish brother Aron live with their self-righteous father Adam (Raymond Massey).
The story is inspired by the tale of Cain in Genesis 4:1-16, and the title "East of Eden" comes from the end of that Biblical passage. I think the main parallel is that the troubled Cal struggles to get the blessing of his father in much the same way Cain tries to get God's approval.
But in addition to the central relationship between son and father, "East of Eden" has other important story elements as well. One of these concerns Abra (Julie Harris), a sweet young woman who is drawn to Cal. Another involves Cal's estranged mother (Jo Van Fleet in an Oscar-winning performance), who owns and operates a brothel in the fishing port of Monterey.
For me, James Dean perfectly captures the emotionally bruised, confused, inarticulate young Cal. In general, the acting in "East of Eden" seems to me to be at a very high level throughout, particularly by Raymond Massey, Jo Van Fleet, and Julie Harris. Also, I think Kazan came up with a good mix of interior and exterior shots that both serve his dramatic purposes and evoke the feeling of 1917 small-town America. I see no major flaws in the film, and it contains memorable scenes like the one where Cal tries to win his father's approval by giving him an extravagant, but inappropriate, gift.
On DVD, "East of Eden" provides a feature-length audio commentary by "Time" magazine's Richard Schickel. Schickel knows a lot about Kazan, and I found his critical insights well worth listening to.
The "East of Eden" DVD comes as a two-disc set with the movie and Schickel's commentary on one disc, while the other disc contains bonus materials. One of the extras is a 2005 nineteen-minute documentary titled "East of Eden: Art in Search of Life." I recommend this featurette, which is basically about Steinbeck and Kazan and how "East of Eden" reflects real life.
The longest bonus material is the one-hour 1988 documentary "Forever James Dean," a studio version of the short life of the young star who died in a road accident at age 24. I found this documentary fairly enjoyable, although it seems to me to be a promo where everything is spun. For example, there's curious voice-over narration that simultaneously addresses the theft of Dean's bust from the cemetery where he was buried, the fact that he didn't serve in the military during the Korean War era, and reports that he had sex with men: "Rumors began to surface that [the bust] had been taken by war veterans who were angered because they claimed that Jimmy had avoided military service by registering as a homosexual."
The remaining extras consist of over six minutes of screen tests, 22 minutes of wardrobe tests, 19 minutes of deleted scenes, and nearly 15 minutes of footage from the March 9, 1955, New York "East of Eden" premiere.
On the next page, I've listed all the special features of the "East of Eden" DVD set.