East of Eden, directed by Elia Kazan, follows a young man named Cal (James Dean) immediately prior to and during the early part of World War I. Cal has a father, Adam, a brother, Aron, and a long-estranged mother. The messages in the film, named for a Bible verse regarding the fate of Cain, are many and dense, but this article will focus on the storytelling surrounding Cal and his relationship with his father because it in particular showcases the ability of the camera to emphasize critical points of the narrative.
The first scene in which Cal has a tense conversation with his father (Raymond Massey), they are seated at opposite ends of a long table, the distance between them exaggerated by the framing. They seldom appear in the shot at the same time. They are pushed to the edges of the frame, creating as much of a void between them as is possible in the space. Moreover, during tight shots the actors are filmed at an angle: off-kilter. In every way, they are isolated, far apart, and unbalanced. The only time in the scene when they appear in frame together, it’s from a severe angle that continues to emphasize the length of the table between them, and only when Cal’s father is satisfactorily answering his son’s questions about his mother. Once he stops, they are separated once more.
Dean and Massey certainly acknowledge the strain and tension between the two men. However, aside from some obvious belligerence, the conversation is subdued, like much of this film. It is because the camera has an active role in the storytelling that their hostility is so deeply felt. What could otherwise appear a passing conflict emerges as a consistent and perpetual problem in their relationship.
Further along in the film comes a scene in which Cal attempts to present his father with a gift in the form of money, which he made from a business that was profitable due to the war. His father will not take it, being morally outraged at how it was made and at the implication that affection can be bought. Cal, however, sees the money as honestly earned and as a gesture that, despite their differences, he wants to be on good terms with his father.
At the start of the scene, Cal is hopeful and his father is unaware. It progresses quite normally, with no severe banking or unconventional framing. However, as their fight manifests and worsens, the men are framed so that Cal’s father towers over him, then so the scene is sharply angled, and finally so that they are pushed to the very edges of the frame, contorting and stretching the typical. Further, their faces are never visible to the camera simultaneously. They have been disconnected, and Cal is devastated.
The facet this scene adds to their relationship, and which could not have been included if not for the directing, is how powerless Cal feels before his father. The way Adam stands over him, constant and unwavering while his son struggles to understand what he did so wrong, alienates them further and hammers home Cal’s motivation for his actions: he wants to be a good child.
The last scene in this article, and coincidentally the last one in the movie, is of Cal and his father finally reaching some common ground. Adam falls ill after Cal betrays Aron, and is confined to bed. Aron is gone, having enlisted in the army, so Cal is all Adam has left.
This scene contrasts sharply with previous interactions between the two of them. It is remarkably still in comparison to the others. The camera is not banked sharply, the characters seldom move, and overall the acting is quiet and restrained. Adam and Cal are framed together, both of their faces visible, neither one of them gesticulating wildly nor speaking above a whisper. Cal, sitting sentry by his father’s bedside, is the last shot of the entire film.
That last shot, filmed a slight distance away and from slightly above perfectly resolves the conflict of the film, in that in does not perfectly resolve the conflict in their relationship. It’s still not a “typical” shot, just a touch too far right, away, and above, but a flawless resolution would not be believable for these characters. The camera ends the story by suggesting the start to a new one.
Elia Kazan, the director of this movie, was a film and theatre legend, though he lived among controversy. When he was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1999, he was called “the master of a new kind of psychological and behavioral truth in acting,” for his work which confronted social and personal issues in a way new to Hollywood at the time. It is in films like East of Eden his skill in subtext is effectively realized.