Rebel Without a Cause (1955) is the landmark, because of its star, and because of its subject matter. This intense, rich portrayal of juvenile delinquency triggered a flood of largely exploitive imitators, but it remains a powerful film, not least for the sympathy with which it treats its characters, and for its understanding. It shows why the Dean, Natalie Wood and company behave the way they do, and does not demonize. This was Dean’s second film, but the first to be released, and hi… performance here remains his most iconic role.
East of Eden (1954), based on the John Steinbeck novel, sees Dean in a WWI-era variation of the Cain and Abel story. He is the bad son of Raymond Massey, struggling for the love of his father, and trying to come to terms with his own identity when he discovers that his mother (Jo Van Fleet) is not, as he and his brother have been told, dead, but is instead a very successful Madam. Here too is Julie Harris as the good girl who falls for the bad boy but just might save him from himself.
Dean’s last film was Giant (1956, previously reviewed). Here he is in a supporting role (Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor are the stars) in a sprawling family soap opera set in Texas. Dean is the sullen ranch hand who strikes oil on his land, and though he is the youngest of the major players, he is the one who most convincingly ages over the course of the film. In fact, his performances stand out in all three films partly because of his technique: the method twitches and improvised bits of business are very, very different from the orthodox work turned in by the rest of his co-stars.
Giant is in 2.0, and the other two films have been remastered into 5.1. The extra effort wasn’t really necessary. In all three cases, the surround elements are few and far between (though Giant does have some very nice moments). The dialogue is, however, almost completely free of distortion, and there are no instances of inappropriate bits of dialogue or effects making their way to the rear speakers.
For the most part, the picture quality is very good. The prints are in excellent shape, barring a few small instances of damage here and there (a grainy transition in Rebel, some flicker in Eden, and so on). The colours are Rebel are extremely strong (a little too much so in the case of the reds). The other two films are less lush, and Eden’s transitions have an unfortunate brown tinge. But the blacks are excellent, and the images are very sharp.
All three films are two-disc special editions. They have fine commentary tracks by film critics and historians. Along with the usual bits and pieces (theatrical trailers, deleted scenes and the like), there are also documentaries in the form of vintage featurettes (more valuable now as historical documents in their own right than as actual information), TV shows (Rebel has a 70s TV doc on Dean, hosted by Peter Lawford), and one really solid, new documentary. These last are at least as good, if not better, than the commentary tracks themselves. If you want to learn something about these films, this is the place to start. Put all of these extras together, and you have one great box set. The main screen of the menus is fully animated and scored.
About as definitive a box set as can be imagined for its subject. An essential purchase.
Special Features List
- Audio Commentaries
- James Dean Vintage Documentaries
- Deleted Scenes
- Screen and Wardrobe Tests
- Vintage Featurettes
- Premiere Footage
- Theatrical Trailers