Jim Stark is the new kid in town. He has been in trouble elsewhere; that's why his family has had to move before. Here he hopes to find the love he doesn't get from his middle-class family. Though he finds some of this in his relation with Judy, and a form of it in both Plato's adulation and Ray's real concern for him, Jim must still prove himself to his peers in switchblade knife fights and "chickie" games in which cars race toward a seaside cliff. Written by
Ed Stephan <email@example.com>
The "chickie run" was staged at a Warner Bros. property in Calabasas, California. The cars drove on flat land that led to a small bluff of only 10 -15 feet high. The cars drove over the small bluff, but the "cliff" supposedly overlooking the ocean was built on Stage 7 (now Stage 16) at the Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank. The constructed cliff overlooked the stage's flooded water tank and the actors looked down upon the water from the edge. Even so, it became necessary to matte in shots of the Pacific Ocean in the final product. See more »
When Plato shoots at Jim, Jim's words don't match up with his mouth. And when Jim tackles him a moment later Plato's words don't match up either. See more »
First police officer:
Get up, get up. Mixed up in that beating on 12th street, huh?
Second police officer:
No. Plain drunkenness.
See more »
With short, slicked-back hair, blue eyes and thick red lips, and dressed in a white T-shirt, blue jeans, and bright red jacket, James Dean creates a lasting visual impression as youthful Jim Stark, the prototype high school outsider, alone and troubled. Dean's on-screen persona, together with his vivid, intense performance, overwhelms all other elements in this film about 1950s teenage confusion and angst.
Newly arrived in town, Jim Stark finds himself trapped in a typically hostile high school, and confronted by an in-crowd of leather-jacketed hoods with names like "Buzz", "Crunch", and "Goon". They challenge Jim's honor by calling him "chicken". What to do? Jim asks his weak, mealy-mouthed father (well played by Jim Backus). But his father is no help. Indeed, the film conveys a grim view of adults: self-indulgent, weak, insensitive, unobservant, and inept.
Then there's "Plato" (Sal Mineo), the high school kid who has always been alone, with no apparent father or mother. In Jim Stark, Plato has finally found a friend. Eventually, another student joins Jim and Plato. Judy (Natalie Wood) changes her caddy behavior toward Jim after an event changes her life. But it's still a hostile world, and the bond that these three young people form, as substitute family, is fleeting, en route to a poignant ending.
The film's characters and thematic tone are representative of a Cold War era in America when the threat of nuclear annihilation hovered over everyone and everything like the sword of Damocles. And thus, the story's astronomy motif amplifies a sense of loneliness, insignificance, isolation, and helplessness, so characteristic of the 1950s.
There are things about this film I do not care for. The compressed widescreen projection in "CinemaScope" is annoying. The music, which varies from jazz to rhythm and blues to nondescript noise, is too loud and too manipulative. And there's something vaguely contradictory about a macho James Dean in the role of Jim Stark, whom bullies pick on.
But none of these irritations can diminish the thematic depth of the story. Nor can they diminish the overpowering presence of James Dean, the actor, the perfect Hollywood symbol of youthful "cool", whom actors subsequently looked to as a model of acting excellence and cinematic charisma.
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