Light and Darkness as Frames in Elia Kazan’s East of Eden

Harry Underwood
Essay 4
NMAC 4481

Light and Darkness as Frames in Elia Kazan’s East of Eden

Some of the most emotionally-heavy scenes in any film work best with the timely interplay between light and darkness, a trope which was well-utilized in the black-and-white era of 1940s-era Hollywood film noir. Elia Kazan’s usage of such a trope attempted to adapt it to the era of color and widescreen that became associated with 1950s-era film. His adaptation of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, set in California on the edge of the U.S. entry into the first World War, effectively uses this interplay to stunning dramatic effect in order to display a full range of human emotion and interaction. Film noir’s most imitable tools – harsh light as inquisition, high contrast light as a frame for darkness, darkness as a frame for light, smoke as an amplification of light, camera tilts to exaggerate the direction of light or darkness, and cast shadow as a symbol of enclosure – are transferred to color film as tools for illustration and symbolism of character behavior and sentiment.

Ambient lighting sets the earliest scenes in the film, with the mid-afternoon sun shining brightly over the people of Monterey, California. Kate, dressed in a dark dress and hat as she marches resolutely to the bank to make a deposit, makes for a visible contrast against the sunny disposition of the surrounding environment. Cal, who notices her and attempts to follow, forms a less-outstanding contrast, his visible face facing away from the sun. From this outset, the audience grasps the notion that Kate and Cal have a less-than-honorable connection with each other, a connection which is in one direction; other facially-visible characters in the scene are less prone to be displayed with such an alignment to the sun, their faces facing in the direction of the sun. Crowther notes that while the usage of the CinemaScope lens for the widescreen capture of the California environment allowed Kazan to capture the “expanse and mood in his California settings” in a manner which was “beyond compare,” the “strain of troubled people against such backgrounds has a clear and enhanced irony” (Crowther).

Lighting plays a large role in establishing conflict, with both lighting and darkness taking their own opportunities to amplify the camera’s capture of the generational conflict between characters. While entering the upper floor of the barn in which Adam preserves large blocks of ice, Cal notices his brother, Aron, flirting with his – Aron’s – girlfriend Abra; the scene is largely set in high-key lighting in order to show the intimacy between Aron and Abra, but lower-key lighting and cast shadowing appear at various times across the characters’ faces, so as to show the incompleteness of such intimacy while under Cal’s gaze. In the view of Rathgeb, the presence of the ice blocks “symbolizes the coldness of Adam’s own house, especially his emotional neglect of Cal” (Rathgeb), a perception that can only be amplified by the prevailing majority of darkness in the barn. Later, the dining room scene places Cal and Adam under the imposition of above lighting, which Adam uses to his advantage in expressing his inquisitorial role in the scene while Cal is shown as repressed, dreary and shying from the pressure. The camera tilt emanates from the direction of the central light, helping to exaggerate the inquisitorial effect.

Lighting, or the decrease thereof, also helps to accentuate transitions. While in the brothel, Cal attempts to get the waitress to direct him to the owner’s room, and the lighting becomes ever darker while Cal wins the waitress over, ultimately moving the two from the smoky lighting of the eatery to the hallway leading to the owner’s personal room. By this time, the lighting switches its role in the depiction from the highlighting of intimate questioning to the display of the emotional chasm which he is about to cross, as Cal’s walk into the hallway away from the light of the eatery takes him through stark darkness to another overhead light above the door of the owner. The camera, with its view from the opposite end of the hallway, places Cal and the waitress in a dark profile against the eatery’s light, further heightening the symbolism of the moment.

Inquisitorial lighting once again appears in the meeting between Cal and Kate in her office. The lighting in the scene gives ground to the imposing Kate, one who commandeers the above lighting alongside the tilted camera angle in order to severely question Cal, who repeatedly shrinks from both the lighting and the camera under her gaze. Ultimately, as she acquiesces to his request for money, it is Kate who eventually seems smaller and darker in countenance to Cal, as she sits down while Cal approaches the desk. At the end, as she orders him to leave, she is standing up but also retreating into the darkness of the room’s corner, a darkness cast upon her by the overhead window panes. This sequence is evocative of Kate’s lingering bitterness against Adam, one which is vocally exhibited toward Cal before her internal wounds and weaknesses are exposed for the viewer.

In a rare positive usage of the interplay in the film, frontal lighting against dark backgrounds is also used in depicting mutual attraction. Cal and Abra sitting on the ferris wheel places their faces as well-lit against the night sky, bringing the two into a closer visual bond; this is a notable usage of chiaroscuro, a visual technique in which faces or objects are highly contrasted by light against an extremely-dark background. In reviewing Kazan’s 1950 film Panic in the Streets, Simmons notes that Kazan had “admired how the Expressionists used chiaroscuro lighting to heighten emotion” (Simmons 2005), a heightening which is more apparent in Abra’s own pained confession of love for Cal.

Darkness and shadows are used to capture the development and formation of emotional initiative and reaction. When Aron approaches and rebukes Cal for his behavior, the camera captures Aron standing against the willow tree which conceals Cal, both of which are set against the filtered light of the moon. Burt notes that “the shot, of necessity, is low-lit and the characters, as well as their facial expressions, are barely discernible,” but that “his [Cal’s] sudden silence and slow, deliberate movement out from under the tree has treacherous implications” (Burt 148). This movement, timed after a long silence of thought formation, shows Cal emerging from the concealment of blended scenery into the immediate foreground as one who has yet to fully accomplish his reaction.

The usage of darkness as a symbolic chasm of acceptability appears once again when Cal introduces Aron to Kate. Cal teases Aron from out of the darkness of the brothel’s hallway into the imposing, sharp overhead light of Kate’s room, abruptly pushing Aron on top of Kate before shutting the well-lit room’s door to plunge much of the visible screen into comparative darkness. In this, the use of bright overhead light is again intended as something which reveals an encounter which is beneficial to neither party under that light’s gaze; the scene also shows Cal as one who, in his own way, uses the light to his own advantage rather than being the recipient of above lighting as an inquisitional tool.

Light, amplified by smoke, once again becomes a frame for darkness. The next time that we see Aron is as a shadow of his earliest self in the film, laughing maniacally after having burst his head through a train window while heading off to the war. The light from closer to the front of the train is accented by the train’s smoke as it piles forward, showing Aron as one who is entering the ghostly border of separation that gradually places him as far away from Adam as possible. The event also slowly shadows Aron’s languishing face while the train moves away from the camera and toward the smoke, symbolically marking his exit from the story of the film, and, by interpretation of the ethereal smoke, his own impending “demise”; this, apparently, is somewhat true to the source material, as the novel shows Aron as dying in the battlefield, an event which causes Adam to have his stroke (Steinbeck 737).

The final bedroom scene in which Adam lays prone from the effect of the stroke is accentuated by the camera’s capture of the remote sunlight hovering above a darkness which largely dominates the wall between Cal, at the door, and Adam in bed. It is this final chasm which Cal crosses as he attempts to engage his father on different terms than in the previous scenes of the film. Upon closer view, the lighting of Adam’s face is of high contrast, his eyes being most well-lit in comparison to his cast-shadowed mouth; to the camera, this shows his eyes, by themselves, as being incessantly accusatory against Cal. The cast shadow upon Abra’s fearful face also is the same as that which appeared in the earlier scene in the barn loft, as Abra was also fearful of the “animal”-like nature of Cal’s inquisitorial gaze upon her and Cal; this time, however, Abra is now fearful of Adam’s refusal to reconcile with Cal for his own misdeed. The cast shadows of the window panes and the gray lighting entering through the windows, however, paint the entire scene in a color of guilt, with all three characters being tried in some form for their prior misdeeds or misconceptions about each other. It is in this setting that Cal, Abra and Adam are, in Hirsch’s view true to Kazan’s usual narrative form as they come to “some kind of emotional resolution” with each other, a trope which is “optimistic and therefore anti-noir” (Hirsch 132).

Kazan’s usage of film noir-style lighting in key scenes in the film, such as the confrontation next to the shadowy willow tree or the cast shadow on the faces of Abra and Aron, ultimately work against the narrative style most associated with the film noir subgenre. Hirsch notes that East of Eden and other films directed by Kazan, such as On the Waterfront and Baby Doll “have vestiges of noir visual style in their high contrast lighting, their smoky environments, their scrutinizing close-ups, their occasional odd camera placement,” but subsequently notes that “Kazan is finally too impassioned for the somnambulist noir style; he is too exuberant to be contained for long within the noir frame and world view” (Hirsch 132).

In conclusion, Kazan utilizes the tropes of film noir-style lighting in a color format in order to illustrate a story of family conflict and human fallacy. Such techniques work primarily with the intended dialogue and behavior of the characters, but other factors are made apparent, such as camera angles and spatial relationships with the camera. Because of Kazan’s own narrative preferences and personal influence upon the decade, however, these techniques mark the evolution and separation of 1950s film from their grim, hard-boiled predecessors of the prior decade, directing light and shadow alike toward the eventual presentation of  redemption and reconciliation.

Works cited

Burt, George. “East of Eden: Climactic Scene.” Indiana Theory Review. vol 11. pp. 145-164. 1991. IUScholarWorks. Web. 3 Dec. 2012.

Crowther, Bosley. “The Screen: ‘East of Eden’ Has Debut; Astor Shows Film of Steinbeck Novel”. Rev. of East of Eden, dir. Elia Kazan. The New York Times 10 Mar. 1955. Web. 3 Dec. 2012.

East of Eden. Dir. Elia Kazan. Perf. James Dean, Julie Harris, Richard Davalos, Raymond Massey, Jo Van Fleet, Burl Ives. Warner Bros., 1955. SockShare. SockShare. Web. 3 Dec. 2012.

Hirsch, Foster. The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir. Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2008. Google Books. Web. 3 Dec. 2012.

Rathgeb, Douglas L. “Kazan as Auteur: The Undiscovered East of Eden.” Literature/Film Quarterly 16(1) (1988): 31-38. Humanities Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 3 Dec. 2012.

Simmons, David Lee. “Panic Attack.” Gambit. Best of New Orleans. 5 Apr. 2005. Web. 3 Dec. 2012.

Steinbeck, John. East of Eden. London: Penguin Books, 1992. Scribd. Web. 3 Dec. 2012.


About Harry Underwood

Website designer, blogger. Columbus, GA. #LGBT #p2 #wordpress

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