Actor. Icon. Legend. Rebel. Though James Dean may have achieved in death far more than he ever did during his short, fast-lane life, he nevertheless made an indelible imprint on the American consciousness, striking a chord with a restless, disaffected youth desperate for a poster boy to symbolize their feelings. Cool yet introverted, tortured, and wild, Dean was a jumble of contradictions, an enigma, and in the six decades since his death in an automobile accident at the tender age of 24, we have yet to solve him. And so his legend grows. He only starred in three films during a brief 16-month span, but his raw talent and innate magnetism captured the collective imagination of audiences everywhere. Combining child-like innocence and heartbreaking sincerity with unbridled rage and shameless emotional displays, Dean tore up the screen, acting with a fearless vigor and piercing intensity that remain captivating, even when his choices backfire. What boggles the mind is that he made such a monumental and lasting impact with such a small body of work. Marilyn and Elvis toiled for years before achieving the level of immortality Dean gained in the blink of an eye.
Was he a great actor? I'd say no. But he was an intuitive, highly creative actor who took chances and blazed a trail for a more naturalistic style of performing. When evaluated next to fellow 1950s rebels Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, Dean is the weakest of the triumvirate, yet he was also the youngest and least polished. Who knows what he might have attained had he lived, how his range might have expanded, and how he might have evolved personally had that fateful car not turned in front of his speeding Porsche on that lonely stretch of California highway on September 30, 1955? Would Dean have continued to reach dizzying heights or would he have crashed and burned like so many other shooting stars who rocketed to fame only to see their careers spontaneously combust?
No one knows. And, of course, such conjecture is a major component of Dean's mystique. Without the opportunity to grow, Dean is frozen in time, a fascinating figure of passion, angst, androgyny, aching sensitivity, deep-seeded need, and most of all, youth. And that's why, almost 60 years after his death, we still care so deeply about him, still cherish his contributions to cinema, and still view him as a relevant, influential figure.
Such reverence permeates Warner Home Video's sumptuous box set, 'James Dean: Ultimate Collector's Edition,' which includes Dean's three major films: 'East of Eden,' 'Rebel Without a Cause,' and 'Giant,' along with two feature-length documentaries examining the actor's life, legacy, and influence, and a host of other rarities. It's an impressive celebration of the now mythic figure that reminds us again what we had in Dean, and what we lost.
'East of Eden'
Based on John Steinbeck's bestselling novel of family secrets, sibling rivalry, and parental neglect, 'East of Eden' updates the Cain and Abel story of brotherly discord, shifting the locale to California's Salinas Valley and chronicling the turbulent relationship between a father, Adam Trask (Raymond Massey), and his two sons around the time of World War I. Aron (Richard Davalos) is the "good" son - responsible, mature, upstanding - and Cal (Dean) is supposedly the bad seed - wild, impetuous, ornery - who takes after his free-spirited mother (Jo Van Fleet in an Oscar-winning performance) who abandoned the family when the boys were toddlers and now runs a house of ill repute in nearby Monterey. Years ago, Adam told Aron and Cal their mother had died, but as the film opens, Cal has discovered she's very much alive and seeks her out, much to the bitter woman's displeasure. Alienated from his father, yet still desperate for his affection, respect, and acknowledgment, Cal courts both his parents in an effort to gain some measure of self discovery, all the while harboring jealousy and resentment toward the favored Aron and his fresh-faced girlfriend, Abra (Julie Harris), who at first dismisses Cal, then recognizes his pain and tries to help him.
Emotional and melodramatic, yet plagued by a nagging stiffness in tone, 'East of Eden' cogently examines a number of potent themes - family dynamics, crippling insecurities, desperation, coming of age, and the transformative power of love. Director Elia Kazan employs off-kilter camera angles to show the imbalance in human relationships, and depicts subtle shifts in attitude and outlook with a keen perception. An actor himself, Kazan identifies with his performers and wrings from them some of their finest work. Dean (who received a posthumous Best Actor Academy Award nomination) and Fleet come off best with no-holds-barred portrayals, but the quiet tenderness Harris conveys is equally appealing. Her scenes with Dean toward the end of the film brim with a heartbreaking sensitivity that's supremely affecting.
With additional Oscar nominations for directing and adapted screenplay, 'East of Eden' stands on its own as a well-made, literate film that intimately connects with audiences. Yet it's most noteworthy for spawning and showcasing Dean's misunderstood, malcontented, and rebellious on-screen persona, an anti-establishment image that would carry through his next two pictures, capture the imagination of a troubled generation, and define his legacy. Rating: 4 stars.
'Rebel Without a Cause'
Say the name James Dean and a slightly hunched, slender, sandy-haired figure wearing blue jeans, a white t-shirt, and a scuffed red jacket immediately springs to mind. And so does the character of troubled, tortured teen, Jim Stark. More so than Cal Trask and Jett Rink, Jim Stark seems to be Dean's alter ego, and 'Rebel Without a Cause' is without question the actor's most iconic film, the one that cemented his reputation and sealed his fate as a symbol of tormented youth. Nicholas Ray's ripped-from-the-headlines drama of alienation, defiance, and individualism was one of the first (and best) movies to explore the generation gap between rowdy teens and their ineffectual parents, and though its depiction of that gaping chasm sometimes goes over the top, the potent message still rings true. Circumstances may change, but core problems remain the same, and that's why 'Rebel' resonates just as strongly now as it surely did almost six decades ago.
Another reason the film strikes such a chord is that the kids who populate it are the kids next door. Jim, Judy (Natalie Wood), Plato (Sal Mineo), and the rest of the high-schoolers aren't the same punks who populate 'The Blackboard Jungle'; they're "good" kids from "fine" homes who don't appreciate the privileges afforded them and rebel simply to break free from the constricting, rigid atmosphere of middle-class inertia. Lack of both communication and intimacy fuel the problems, and with insight and perception, screenwriter Stewart Stern gets under the teens' skins, painting an affecting portrait of loners who long for meaning and connection.
As the stereotypical new kid in town, Jim, who already has a history of attracting "trouble," is instantly ostracized by his peers and forced to prove his worth and mettle first in a knife fight and then - in the film's most famous scene - in a dangerous game of "chickie run," in which two drivers speed their cars toward a cliff and the last one to jump out wins. Tragedy ensues, and the resulting fallout sends Jim, Judy, and the worshipping Plato to an abandoned mansion where they hope to find a measure of peace.
Ray's tough, melodramatic style suits the material well, and Dean commands the screen as the anguished adolescent who's more mature than his bickering parents (Jim Backus and Ann Doran). Wood, who previously had played only juvenile parts, makes a striking impression in her first mature role, displaying the combination of tenderness, spunk, and beauty that would soon make her a major star, and Mineo will break your heart as a neglected outcast who latches onto Jim like a lost puppy. Both actors would be nominated for Best Supporting Oscars for their natural and affecting portrayals.
Some elements of 'Rebel' seem a bit dated today, but the film retains its magnetism, thanks to timeless themes and the universal emotions it expresses. At one point or another, we've all felt like Jim, Judy, and Plato, and it's that visceral identification that keeps this movie relevant. Rating: 4-1/2 stars.
Dean received another posthumous Best Actor Oscar nomination for 'Giant,' but the role of shiftless outcast Jett Rink, who strikes it big on a dusty plot of Texas land and becomes a ruthless oil baron, is really more of a supporting part. Still, it's a noteworthy role for Dean, as it veers away from the emotionally ravaged heroes of his two previous films and allowed the actor the chance to widen his horizons. Along with co-stars Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson, Dean ages from his 20s to his 50s throughout the course of the three-hour-twenty-one-minute epic that's both a chronicle of a family and a state.
After a whirlwind courtship, rich Texas rancher Bick Benedict (Hudson) weds Leslie (Taylor), a headstrong belle from Maryland, and whisks her away to Reata, his remote, half-a-million-acre compound. Once there, Bick tries to indoctrinate Leslie into the macho culture and conservative attitudes of the Lone Star State, but his young bride has a mind of her own and fights the blatant sexism, insidious racism, and widespread arrogance that blanket the windblown landscape. Over the years, as they raise their family and deal with the trials and tribulations of the second generation of Benedicts, Bick and Leslie lock horns over a variety of issues while adapting to changing mores and circumstances in the country at large and within their own marriage. Meanwhile, Bick and Jett, who have always harbored a mutual dislike for each other, become bitter rivals when Jett's wealth begins to eclipse Bick's, and their burgeoning enmity disrupts both their lives, especially when Jett becomes involved with Bick's daughter, Luz (Carroll Baker).
In some ways, the strong-willed, take-no-prisoners Leslie resembles Scarlett O'Hara, and at times, 'Giant' recalls 'Gone With the Wind' in terms of its scope, music score, large cast of characters, and depiction of how a bygone way of life evolves over time. Based on Edna Ferber's bestselling novel, 'Giant' ruffled plenty of Texan feathers in book form, but director George Stevens (who won the film's only Academy Award out of 10 nominations, including Best Picture) manages to celebrate the state's individualism and unique culture without glossing over its problems. 'Giant' is the third and final film in Stevens' American trilogy - 'A Place in the Sun' and 'Shane' are the other two - and despite its epic canvas, possesses an intimate feel. Like a lazy Texas drawl, 'Giant' takes its time making its points, but the movie is rich in character and theme, and only occasionally sputters during its lengthy running time. The work of Taylor, Hudson (who also received a Best Actor Oscar nomination), and Dean is uniformly excellent, even as they awkwardly age, and the supporting actors, especially Baker, Mercedes McCambridge, and a young Dennis Hopper, also file impressive performances.
Like Texas itself, 'Giant' is big, blustery, and confident. It has a lot to say, and it states its case firmly and succinctly, inciting debate, admiration, and a bit of shame. Though the film belongs to Taylor and Hudson, Dean remains a potent, looming presence, a symbol of how greed, wealth, animosity, and jealousy corrupt and destroy. As epics go, 'Giant' is more substantive than most, and the care that went into its production is evident in almost every frame. It's not Stevens' greatest film - I'd bestow that honor on 'A Place in the Sun' - but it's still a magnificent piece of filmmaking that holds up well. Rating: 4-1/2 stars.
Tragically, only a few days after shooting his final scene, Dean would die, a victim of his own recklessness. Yet like the title of his last movie, the actor casts a giant shadow and remains to this day a monumental figure in the world of cinema. Three movies may not be enough to make a career, but they were enough to coin a persona and give birth to a legacy that will outlast us all.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'James Dean: Ultimate Collector's Edition' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in an 11-1/2"-x-7-1/2"-x-1-3/4" box with a magnetic flap. Inside lies a similarly sized, lavishly illustrated, 44-page hardcover book that provides a cursory overview of Dean's career, impact, and legacy, along with a few items of trivia. Sadly, all the photos are in black-and-white, yet the volume is handsomely designed and makes a nice keepsake for Dean's fans. An envelope housing additional collectibles sits beneath the book, and contains 12 7"-x-10" glossy black-and-white stills of Dean on the sets of his various films, six reproductions of studio memos from 'East of Eden' and 'Rebel Without a Cause,' and three 14"-x-20" folded reproductions of posters from the three films included in this collection. A multi-paneled, fold-out disc case resides at the bottom of the box, and houses three BD-50 dual-layer discs and four standard-def DVDs. 'East of Eden,' 'Rebel Without a Cause,' and 'Giant' are also available individually in attractive digibook packaging with all the same disc extras included here for a few bucks less than this collector's set, so which edition you choose really depends on your packaging preference. I'm a huge fan of Warner digibooks, and wish they could have been included here instead of the fold-out case.
Video codec on all three films is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4. Default audio on 'East of Eden' and 'Rebel Without a Cause' is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, and on 'Giant' it's DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. Once the discs are inserted into the player, the static menus with music immediately pop up; no previews or promos precede them.
Warner always takes wonderful care of its classics collection, and these James Dean films represent the studio's commitment to producing quality transfers that honor the original look of each individual film. All the encodes are 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and have been taken from 4k scans of each film's negative.
'East of Eden'
With such picturesque California backdrops as the Salinas Valley and Monterey, I expected 'East of Eden' to possess a lush color palette, but Ted McCord's cinematography flaunts a muted look that's well represented on this high quality rendering. Occasionally, an explosion of vibrant hues, like the field of yellow wildflowers that engulfs Cal and Abra, perks up the picture, as do Kazan's off-kilter camera angles and striking deep focus shots. A light veneer of grain maintains the feel of celluloid and lends the image an appropriate period texture, while good contrast and clarity enhance the perception of fine details. Blacks are rich and deep, fleshtones are spot on, and close-ups look crisp. Any age-related imperfections have been removed from the source material, and no digital imperfections or doctoring destroy the print's integrity. This is a top-flight effort all around that should certainly please the film's fans. Rating: 4-1/2 stars.
'Rebel Without a Cause'
Red is the predominant color in 'Rebel Without a Cause,' and from the moment the block red letters appear on screen during the opening title sequence, we know we're in for a visual treat. Bold and beautifully saturated, the reds in 'Rebel' constantly make a statement, from Wood's lipstick and fiery coat in the early police station scene to the iconic, scuffed up red jacket Dean dons throughout most of the film. Other hues fare well, too, in this solid transfer that features excellent contrast and clarity, inky black levels, vibrant whites, and stable, true fleshtones. Grain is visible - more so during exterior location scenes than studio interiors - yet adds a potent naturalness to the image that's essential to the hard-hitting story. No nicks, marks, or scratches mar the pristine source material, and no banding, noise, or other digital anomalies afflict the picture. Much of the film takes place at night, but fine shadow delineation keeps crush at bay, and background elements are always sharp and easy to discern. Close-ups sport a nice array of detail, too. Rating: 4-1/2 stars.
Much of the time, the 'Giant' transfer is breathtakingly beautiful, distinguished by marvelous clarity and contrast, an unobtrusive grain structure that supplies vital texture and a lovely filmic feel, and bursts of vibrant hues that belie the movie's single-strip Warnercolor roots. Yet occasionally - sometimes in mid-scene - jarring soft shots appear that flaunt heavier grain and a slight smeary look, making one wonder if they were possibly culled from a different source. The discrepancies are frustrating, but overall, this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 effort complements this colorful epic well and provides an immersive experience. Not a speck or errant scratch sullies the pristine print, which nicely showcases William C. Mellor's exquisite cinematography. Black levels are rich and deep - a silhouette of Bick as he gets off the train is striking - whites are crisp, and fleshtones look natural. Stevens' trademark slow dissolves are well rendered, as are the reflections in a train window early in the film, and some of the close-ups of Taylor are jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Subtle details show up well, and shadow delineation is quite good, especially during a key scene between Bick and Leslie as they discuss their relationship. A bit of fading afflicts the image from time to time (darn that Warnercolor!), but accents like a bouquet of flowers or the yolk of a sunny-side egg add some pop to the picture. No digital doctoring seems to have been applied, and no imperfections, such as banding, noise, or crush inhibit one's enjoyment of the film. This is not the perfect presentation of 'Giant' for which classic movie buffs have long been pining, but it's probably the best we'll ever see. Rating: 4 stars.
Both 'East of Eden' and 'Rebel Without a Cause' feature DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 tracks, while 'Giant' is equipped with a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mix. Despite the difference in specs, the audio on all three films is strikingly similar - clear, robust, well-modulated, and devoid of surface noise, hiss, and other age-related imperfections. Though surround activity is practically non-existent on 'Eden' and 'Rebel,' both tracks produce full-bodied audio that fills the room well, especially during periods of extended scoring. The wide dynamic scales allow Leonard Rosenman's music free reign to push the limits of the high and low spectrums, and superior fidelity lends each composition a marvelous fullness and depth of tone. Atmospherics are limited, too, but the gentle breezes in 'East of Eden' and evening crickets in 'Rebel' provide a subtle sense of expanse. Conversations, even when peppered with Dean's patented mumbles, are always easy to comprehend, and accents such as footsteps, train whistles, and the sirens of squad cars are crisp and distinct.
The 'Giant' track is presented in two-channel mono and sounds appropriately robust. A slight bit of surface noise can be detected from time to time, but this is largely a clean track with solid fidelity and a nice expansive feel, which is rare for a single-channel mix. Bass tones are especially strong, with powerful rumbles occurring when Jett's well erupts, and accents, such as cows mooing, the slamming of a book, and shattering glass, make a statement, too. Dialogue remains clear and comprehendible throughout (though a few of Dean's mumbles are unintelligible), and Dimitri Tiomkin's patriotic music score possesses plenty of sonic vitality. The gusty Texas wind and driving raindrops during the storm sequence late in the film also add essential atmosphere. Stevens was famous for his meticulous, detailed soundscapes, and the effort he expended on 'Giant' is in full evidence here.
An extensive, impressive, and utterly absorbing collection of supplements make this box set truly special. In addition to the commemorative hardcover book, poster reproductions, black-and-white glossy photographs, and copies of studio memos described above, there's a wealth of material associated with each individual film, as well as three feature-length documentaries on three separate DVDs that examine Dean's impact and legacy, as well as one of the iconic directors with whom he worked. It's quite a package, and all the elements will surely stoke the passions of both Dean and classic film aficionados.
'East of Eden'
'Rebel Without a Cause'
Much more than a mythic figure and symbol of rebellious youth, James Dean was a damn fine actor. His exceptional range, naturalistic style, and emotional intensity span the ages, and his trio of major films remain a timeless testament to his talent. Though his death at age 24 spawned a legend, the reason Dean is still relevant today is because of his work, and 'James Dean: Ultimate Collector's Edition' celebrates the man and his memorable performances. This seven-disc box set, which also includes glossy photographs, reproductions of movie posters and studio correspondence, and a lavishly illustrated hardcover book, is a must for any Dean admirer. Featuring pristine video transfers, high-quality audio, and more than 12 hours of extras, this is indeed the ultimate tribute to one of cinema's true icons, and it comes very highly recommended.