One of the great curiosities of film history is that the one starring role that did not net James Dean an Oscar nomination is now widely regarded as his best film. It’s also the film that more than any other established him as a cult icon. Released a month after his death, it cemented his image as a troubled youth with its tale of a California teen who can’t keep himself out of trouble. When he goes on the run with girlfriend Judy (Natalie Wood) and adoring younger friend Plato (Sal Mineo), they set up a dream family that can’t last. Dean almost didn’t get to play his most iconic role. He was scheduled to film Giant (1956) at the same time, but Elizabeth Taylor’s pregnancy delayed production long enough for him to fit this film in. Although the film bears the title of a popular ’40s study of juvenile delinquency, it’s really director Nicholas Ray’s invention. When Warner Bros. picked up his story “The Blind Run,” they asked him to use the book’s title. Ray’s work was far ahead of its time: he painted a picture of disaffected youth that seems more typical of the suburban anomie of the ’70s. With screenwriter Stewart Stern, Dean and Mineo, he also inserted subtle hits that Plato was homosexual, making him the screen’s first great gay tragic figure.
(d. Nicholas Ray, 111m, Digital)