“You’re tearing me apart!”
There ought to be some sort of law that states something to the effect of the following. If you have a role in a dramatic movie deemed to be a classic, you shouldn’t be allowed to then go ahead and typecast yourself in a silly sit-com. It kind of ruins things when you watch James Dean, the most dramatic of even the method actors, emote his heart out opposite Mr. Howell and the Chief from Get Smart. Dean was so out on a wire here that they often had to put swelling dramatic music over his scenes to discourage people from laughing. It can’t help things when half of those scenes are opposite Mr. Magoo.
Rebel Without a Cause has such beautiful color photography that it seems almost impossible to conceive of the fact that they initially started filming it in black and white. Dean is every bit as tormented here as he was in East of Eden, but it’s more of an existential torment this time. He’s filled with rage and he’s not quite sure why. Dean, as well as every other kid in this movie, again has huge problems with his father (Jim Backus), but this time he hates his father’s mild mannered best intentioned weakness as a man. Dean is so disgusted by his Dad’s ineffectuality that he refuses to back down to anybody for any reason. Check out how enraged he gets when Dad tries to give him important life advice while traipsing around in Mom’s apron.
East of Eden is definitely the stronger movie, but this performance is likely to be the one that tugged and forever defined the unexplainable angst of youth. The opening scene alone is probably the most heart rending bit of self pity ever filmed with Dean picturesquely drunk in the streets lovingly making a bed out of newspaper for one of those cymbal crashing toy monkeys. Personally, I’d kill to look that good for even a second. Mickey Rourke has probably even tried. Dean is also a hoot in the police station giggling when he is frisked, howling along drunkenly with the police sirens, and affecting mock fighting poses at the passing cops.
Of course, it never hurts to look bad ass as hell in jeans and a red jacket and to participate in knife fights and chicken runs. Unfortunately, for Jim Stark (Dean) he makes it about three quarters of the way through his hazing as the new kid. Had Buzz Gunderson (Corey Allen) made it out of the chicken run alive, they probably would have gone on to be best friends and terrorize greater Los Angeles together. Instead Dean winds up with Dennis Hopper and a bunch of other goons trying to hunt him down. I have always found Buzz to be a great icon. He understands the ennui of the age and he shows Dean how effective it is to die young. Seconds before he goes off the cliff in a stolen car, Buzz tells Jim he likes him. Dean wonders why if that’s the case are they risking their lives with the chicken run. “We gotta do something,” he answers. Jim winds up looking cool as he spirals out of his car. Buzz gets a great view on the way down.
People like to say that Dean was nothing but a Marlon Brando imitation, but Marlon never looked this young, this perfect, and his attempt at rebellion in The Wild One comes in a movie that has always seemed to me to be almost as silly and dated as Reefer Madness even with that great line where he is asked what he’s rebelling against and he responds with “What have you got?”
Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood also grasp at Dean as a substitute father figure. Had Mineo’s Plato survived this movie, I’m sure he would have ended up as some kind of serial killer somewhere. He probably would have made a great Lee Harvey Oswald. He first meets Jim at the police station after blowing away a bunch of innocent puppies. As for Wood, she’s desperate for a little fatherly affection and will do anything to get it. I would say it all seems a little silly but that’s how Charlie Manson got all his women and he lived just outside of Los Angeles too. Nevertheless, if you look hard enough you’ll see how the movie puts all the blame on science. If it weren’t for science, we wouldn’t know how insignificant we all were in an infinite universe, we wouldn’t be able to blow ourselves to pieces with atomic weaponry. Marvel Comics had the same concerns, but in that world everyone got super powers so they could keep up. In the end, Dean searches for a reason to be moral anyway.