This review originally appeared in Issue 6 of So Film magazine.
It wouldn't be until 1982 that director Robert Altman mounted his little-seen and underappreciated film that tackled the lasting cult of James Dean at close quarters with Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. Twenty-five years earlier, barely eighteen months after the actor's fateful drive to Salinas in September 1955, Altman had already enshrined him in legend with a documentary rushed into production to capitalise on the myth-making process that swiftly followed the star's death at just 24 years old.
"[The audiences] had made James Dean, and they wouldn't let him go," began the opening narration to The James Dean Story (1957). "To keep him close they made a legend in his name... He seemed to express the things they couldn't find the words for: Rage! Rebellion! Hope! The lonely awareness that growing up is pain... [He was] a hero made from their loneliness. A legend woven from their restlessness, their energy, their despair..."
Embalmed in popular culture on the strength of just three feature films (only one of which was released during his lifetime), Dean remains to this day as defined by what he represented - an icon of the cult of the teenager as manifested in his finest performance - as much as by the tragic circumstances of his death. The poster-child of a generation, it's surprising how little-seen his films are today, Dean seeming to exist wholly independently of and apart from the work that shot him to fame in the first place.
With Park Circus bringing newly remastered prints of his films back into cinemas this month, it's a welcome opportunity to reassess his work for three distinctive filmmakers, to cut through more than half a century of iconography to find the actor beneath the legend.
"They dug up a Mastadon somewhere in Siberia," proclaims Raymond Massey's wannabe fridge magnate father in Elia Kazan's East of Eden (1955), "been in the ice for thousands of years and the meat was still good." Dean's breakthrough performance (he'd had tiny roles previously for the likes of Sam Fuller and Douglas Sirk), at once celebrated for a Method-addled naturalism that worshipped at the shrine of Brando and Lee Strasberg, has been on ice now for almost sixty years. So is the meat still good?
It's without doubt the actor's most affected performance, and the stodgy melodrama within which it's framed is hardly representative of Kazan at his best. There's plenty out there to read on the impact this newly-minted acting style had on audiences (and fellow performers) at the time, but viewed retrospectively its Oedipally-inflamed histrionics can be a large pill to swallow whole. Where Kazan had previously played the old and new schools of performance off each other for the claustrophobic theatricality of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), it's simply too much here, even for all the Biblical allusions writ large across Paul Osborn's screenplay.
It comes as no surprise that Kazan would drop the widescreen ratio for his next feature, given how uncomfortable he appears to be with it here. Whilst his later rural sojourn Wild River (1960) would demonstrate a greater confidence in image-making, his random canting and compressing of the frame in East of Eden feels less psychologically motivated and more for want of any better ideas on how to bring a scene to life visually.
So thank god for Nicholas Ray, a director in absolute command and mastery of the widescreen image. Not only is Rebel Without a Cause (1955) Dean's crowning achievement, it's also up there with Ray's best work. Gone are the raging neuroses of East of Eden's wellspring of self-pity, replaced by a sharper sense of focus in Dean's performance. The white T-shirt and red jacket may be the look that defined him - Ray's use of colour still astounds - and the 'chicken-run' race his most famous scene, but it's the film's tender and barely submerged take on teenage sexuality that feels truly modern.
It's the quintessential teen movie, instigating a raft of imitators to follow in its wake - including one by Altman, The Delinquents (1957) - yet it's in its deconstruction and reconstruction of the 50s family unit that finds the film at its most affecting. Sure, it can press it's point a little theavily at times (notably Jim Backus as Dean's dad, emasculated in a floral apron), but the sequence where the trio of kids play house before the final shootout ends with a tableaux heaving with emotional weight and repressed suggestion.
There's not much beyond James Dean's performance with which to recommend his final film. George Steven's Giant (1956) is a lumbering Mastodon hardly worth the effort of defrosting. Clocking in at just under three and a half hours, it's an epic soap opera of class divisions and oil strikes that collapses under its own obesity way before it gets bogged down in the racial melodrama with which it limply closes.
Dean has one great scene as he confronts Rock Hudson's landowner, slicked in the oil he's just struck on his tiny plot of land, but he's very much the supporting player to Steven's message-making and (surprisingly non-widescreen) love for the Texan skies. Dean injects some much-needed life into proceedings elsewhere, proving a welcome antidote to the buttoned-up classicism of the filmmaking and fellow performances. It's hard not to be taken in by the way he moves through the landscape, often in silhouette against the sun. More than anywhere else, Dean seems to demonstrate an awareness of the images he was forging out of gesture and pose, despite Stevens' determination to cut him down to size - in life and on film. Little did he know that the only reason anyone would sit through Giant sixty years on was for those small moments, few and far between, when a legend in the making would pull down his Stetson and steal a scene from under him.