I was both supremely excited and a little afraid to watch this again. The first time I watched this was several years ago along with my brother and we both fell in love with it pretty much instantaneously. I have some serious memories tied into this movie and I definitely wasn’t ready to discover that this wasn’t that perfect film that bro and me watched together that night we were home alone. Thankfully, my fears were unfounded. Just seeing the opening credits in that resplendent red background was enough to remind me of just how amazing this film looks and by the time I saw James Dean, Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood in that police station, I felt like I was amongst old friends who would never let me down.
So, first and foremost, how is James Dean not on my Top 5 Crushes list? Clearly, he should be! I definitely haven’t seen him in enough films but I should because at least going by this, he is amazing. He manages to be incredibly handsome and hot while still exuding this awkwardness that is so authentic and disarming. His inability to talk to anyone – even Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood who seem to be the two people he finally manages some sort of connection with – is really heartbreaking. And yet he is capable of warmth and tenderness and ultimately I think he even wins over Buzz, his key rival in the film.
I can’t say that nothing about the film is flawed or at the very least, dated. The parents do seem silly to me now and it is not quite clear to me, why every kid in this film seems to have neglectful parents. Despite that, the film doesn’t feel fake. It always treats these kids with respect and takes their problems and pain seriously.
I think what really makes the film so effective for me is Dean’s performance. He is in nearly every frame and rightly so. He just embodies this kid who is fundamentally good but can’t help getting in trouble and his pain is so palpable that even the amazing brilliant colors and the caricaturist parents can’t distract from the intensity of his performance. I loved the scene early on in the film where he’s talking to the cop (another really good performance to my mind) who seems to be the one understanding adult around. He’s also truly terrific in the scenes with Natalie Wood — really romantic and sweet, especially in the scene right before the chicken run begins when he asks Natalie Wood to give him some dirt as well. *Sigh*.
Even though I loved James Dean’s performance, the character I really wanted to be is obviously Plato. How great is Sal Mineo in this role! It’s generally acknowledged that Plato was in love with Jim, right? That look on Plato’s face when he sees James Dean at school after their first encounter in the police station is just such a great scene.
As is the look on Plato’s face when James Dean gets into the car for the race. Or when he’s pretending to Natalie Wood that he’s much closer to James Dean than she is. And of course in the entire abandoned mansion sequence. Which brings me to my favorite part of this film. I already remembered this part of the film as being pretty great. But it was even better than I remembered it. The laughter as they explore the house and Plato pretends to be a landlord showing a newly-married couple around, the three of them playing around the dried-up swimming pool and subsequently settling into a temporary family of sorts, finding solace and happiness which we know is inevitably going to be taken away soon. The whole thing feels vaguely surreal and the final tragedy is just as devastating and unbearable even though I knew it was coming. Just the way that scene is shot is really powerful.
But that final third is not the only part filled with memorable shots. Really, the entire film feels like this series of iconic images. The trip to the Griffith Observatory is really fantastic as well as is the chickie run. Oh, and the colors in the film are just so vivid and unforgettable. The reds and the blues just fill the screen and almost seem to heighten every emotion. Whenever I think of James Dean in my head, it is in this characteristic red jacket.
It’s not like I didn’t find flaws in the film. In fact, I found quite a few. I already mentioned my issue with the parents being painted rather broadly. This was the case with Natalie Wood’s parents as well imo. Secondly, I don’t think the film quite earns the transition in Natalie Wood’s character. I guess the idea is that she is actually good but tends to behave differently around the kids and goes back to being herself when she’s alone with Jim and Plato in the second half. But somehow, the way she seems to have gotten over Buzz so quickly and so on, felt a bit odd to me. Plus, Buzz doesn’t really seem like such a bad guy. The whole film covers what, two days? By the time we go from the observatory to the actual chickie run, Buzz already seems to have softened towards Jim and I felt like this was done so that we could feel bad about what happened to Buzz. Felt a bit rushed. The scene with Jim’s dad wearing an apron felt a bit heavy-handed to me.
So yeah, there are flaws. But I feel really bad even mentioning them because they didn’t really matter at all. I loved every second I spent with this film. What is amazing is the performances, the sexual tension between the three main characters, the way the film doesn’t settle for easy cause and effect relationships (to my mind at least) but presents teenage as a difficult and possibly traumatic experience that can lead to some tragic outcomes. These characters are unforgettable as are these images.