Where in East of Eden, we have the contorting and convulsing Dean, here we have a more muted and subtle performance, and the one that made Dean the icon that he is today. The film was helmed by director Nicholas Ray, who would not find much more cinematic prominence in his career after this picture. It’s also notable that James Dean was only alive for the release of one of his films, the aforementioned East of Eden. Both this film and Giant were released posthumously and caused many fans to read into bits of dialogue here and there in hopes of gaining some insight into the actor’s psyche.
Dean plays Jim Stark, a young man who has frustrated his parents and forced them to move multiple times because of his anti-social behavior. Jim is not a “bad boy”, as the iconography of Dean has informed pop culture, but more of a quiet, troubled young man. And Jim doesn’t have an issue with figures of authority as long as they show him respect. One of the most remarkable characters in the film is Officer Ray Fremick, who genuinely wants to help Jim and offers him an ear any time he needs to talk. In turn, Jim’s parents are an utter mess attempting to hide this to public.
A scene early on sets of the thesis of the film: Jim and his classmates are attending a planetarium show at Griffith Observatory where the presenter tells them of the sun’s eventual implosion and the earth’s destruction, utter the phrase “Through the infinite reaches of space, the problems of man seem trivial and naive indeed, and man existing alone seems himself an episode of little consequence.”. This is why Jim is a rebel without a cause, he fights against a system for no reason other than to fight. At one point in the film, Jim is challenged to a game of chicken by school bad boy Buzz. As they prepare to race, Buzz tells Jim he likes him, Jim asks why they are doing this then, and Buzz replies “Well, what else are we gonna do?”
Another interesting aspect of the film is Plato (Sal Mineo), a fellow student of Jim’s whose father has left and whose mother is little involved in her child’s life. The family’s housekeeper is the most concerned person about Plato, as the boy tortures small animals and grows increasingly aggressive and upset. Plato immediately clings to Jim and, as it wouldn’t have been apparent to audiences in the 1950s, has homosexual feelings for the new boy in school. There are scenes where Plato reaches out simply to touch Jim’s shoulder, and when Jim heads home for the night, Plato informs him that there’s no one at his house and that he and Jim could hang out there if he’d like. I found it to be tremendously progressive for a film of this period to feature a character to so blatantly gay and not make him a villainous figure.
The film shows major growth in Dean’s acting ability, as this character chooses to simmer instead of explode. It’s definitely not his best performance, which I believe is in Giant.