(director/writer: Nicholas Ray; screenwriters: Irving Shulman/Stewart Stern/from a Nicholas Ray story; cinematographer: Ernest Haller; editor:William H. Ziegler; cast: James Dean (Jim Stark), Natalie Wood (Judy), Sal Mineo (Plato), Jim Backus (Jim’s father), Corey Allen (Buzz Gunderson), Edward Platt (Ray), Dennis Hopper (Goon), Ann Doran (Jim’s Mother), Marietta Canty (Plato’s Nanny), Frank Mazzola (Crunch), William Hopper (Judy’s Father); Runtime: 111; Warner; 1955)

“It sides with the rebellious youths.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

By the time this film was released, James Dean, the idolized 24-year-old star of the film and soon-to-be eternal cult-icon of estranged youth, had died in a head-on car collision on September 30, 1955. Coincidentally, one of the themes of the film is playing ‘chickie run’, that is the cars race to a bluff and the first to jump before going over the cliff is a chicken. Everyone knows how bad it is to be called a chicken–it could mess up one’s self-image worse than the wind can mess up a duck-tail haircut for a teenager in the 1950s–as this liberal-inspired social commentary film boldly plunges right into that 1950s Eisenhower era mind-set.

NicholasRay’s teenage angst film about affluent, postwar, suburban L.A. juvenile delinquents who are alienated and can’t cope with their disturbing home life, is arguably the best rebellious youth film of the 1950s; and, though dated, it still plays well today because the issues facing the teenagers haven’t changed that much. It was based on an actual case study of a teenage delinquent. It sides with the rebellious youths and it doesn’t even demonize the police. It airs out the prevalent problems of the mid ’50s facing these youngsters; such as, loneliness, alienation, lack of love, peer-pressure, an identity crisis, and the lack of communication with their parents. It also hints about one troubled youth, who might be a homosexual, Plato, played with delicacy by Sal Mineo. At that time nobody talked about such things in films or knew what to say about such matters. Though, the film stresses that his loneliness problem stems from no father at home and no mother there to console him and tries to make his withdrawal the problem rather than his homosexuality, yet there are strong hints that he is still in-the-closet about his sexual choice. Pasted on his high school locker, there is a glossy fan photo of Alan Ladd. He also seems to be attracted to Dean in a physical way, though the film tries to make it seem that he mostly wants to induce Dean into being his surrogate father.

The three main stars cross paths in the opening scene in the police station, which is just the right place for the mixed-up innocents to meet. Jimmy Stark (Dean) is brought in for public drunkenness, he was lying on the street with a toy monkey. He has just moved here and has no friends and is visibly upset that his crone-like mother (Doran) and gutless father (Backus) who are always quarreling, are still arguing in the police station as they come to take him home. He feels that they are not listening to him and that his bumbling father is not a good role model. When questioned by the sensitive youth officer, Ray (Edward Platt), Jimmy tells him the truth about his problems and seems to form a positive relationship with him (I couldn’t help laughing at that scene and how punky Dean seemed).

The troubled young girl, Judy (Wood), has been picked up wandering the streets mistaken for a prostitute and tells Ray the reason for her being on the street is that her father (William Hopper) called her a dirty tramp. She can’t get her father to offer her fatherly love, as he seems to be repelled by her. The officer calls home and gets her mother to take her home, when she wanted her father to be the one to come for her.

The third troubled youth is John Crawford, who goes by the nickname Plato (you know, like the philosopher!). He is being looked after by his black nanny (Canty), who can’t control him. He is at the station because he used his mother’s gun to shoot puppies, seemingly upset because his mother was not there for his birthday. The officer handling his case, recommends that his nanny tell his mother to get Plato to a psychiatrist.

The film takes place over one long 24-hour period of delirious activity, starting on an Easter night in the police station and ending the next night with police surrounding the planetarium where the same three principals from the opening scene at the police station are now at; but, they are now in more serious trouble.

Jimmy is naturally nervous about going to his new school the next morning but he is not concerned about teachers or subjects, but about making new friends. He is attracted to Judy but she rebuffs him for the ruffian crew she stays with, led by her leather-jacketed boyfriend Buzz (Corey Allen). All these well-off kids ride to school together in their convertible, acting loud and stupid, proud to be dumb Americans. Supposedly, they will later on go on to become imbued with Middle America’s values and reflect fondly back on their “good old days”, as days of harmless mischief.

Jimmy’s first contact with them is at the school visit to the nearby D.W. Griffith Planetarium, and it results in taunting and confrontation outside the building. He is dressed for school in a suit and tie, while Plato is dressed in a sweater and tie. They are not looking for trouble, in fact he is trying his best to avoid it. But Jimmy is hung-up on being called a chicken, afraid that he will become like his father if he doesn’t respond. He thinks his dad should have answered his harping mother back a long time ago. So he is egged on to a knife fight with Buzz, after Buzz slashed his tire with his switchblade. He would have ignored it except Buzz and the gang made chicken sounds. The fight is broken up by a security guard, but a ‘chickie run’ is arranged for that night.

At home Jimmy tries to tell his father what is going on, why he is bleeding. He asks him what to do about ‘a matter of honor.’ Mr. Stark is ironically dressed in an apron and can’t directly answer his son’s question of: “What do you have to do to be a man?”

The rest of the night turns into a Shakespearean tragedy, as Jimmy bails out in the nick of time during the ‘chickie run’ but Buzz’s jacket gets stuck in the car door and he goes over the cliff. Judy gets a ride home with Jimmy and she becomes his new girlfriend, just like that. At home Jimmy tells his parents that he wants to go to the police station and tell them what happened, but they try to talk him out of that. He then runs out of the house but has no luck getting the police to listen to his story. Crunch (Mazzola) and the rest of the gang, who see him at the station when they are being questioned, decide that he has squealed to the police on them and go after him.

Jim finds Judy and they go to a deserted mansion that Plato told him about, that is near the planetarium. Plato will join them there later bringing his mother’s gun along for protection, which he feels he needs after he was visited by the gang and roughed up. The three outsiders become like an alternative nuclear family, the kind of family the three of them were searching for in their own homes.

They find some peace during the later hours of the night. But their happiness is short-lived as Crunch and the boys find them in the mansion, and Plato wounds Crunch who is coming after him. He then runs into the Griffith Park Planetarium to escape the rest of the gang. With the police surrounding the planetarium, Jim and Judy run in to talk Plato into peacefully giving up. But despite Jim’s efforts, the ill-fated Plato panics and is shot down by the police as he tries to run after being frightened by the glare of the police lights. After the incident, Jim’s father reconciles with his son, telling him they will face the world together from now on. He tells him: “You tried to help Plato; it’s not your fault what happened. You did all that you could do, that any man can do.” The picture ends as the light of dawn is barely breaking through the darkness and an unidentified man (Nicholas Ray) is walking up the steps of the planetarium.

For all its aging and the changing mores of the times and the ever-increasing complexities of modern youth, this creaky film still has a rawness. It still brings on a chill.

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