Cast: James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Jim Backus, Ann Doran
Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Sal Mineo), Best Supporting Actress (Natalie Wood), Best Writing, Motion Picture Story (Nicholas Ray)
SUMMARY: In a Los Angeles suburb, teenager Jim Stark (James Dean) is arrested after roaming drunkenly through the street. He is taken to the juvenile division, where he joins John “Plato” Crawford (Sal Mineo), arrested after shooting a litter of cats, and Judy (Natalie Wood), who was arrested after violating curfew. Though the three do not know each other, they have similar problems, primarily with their parents. Jim cannot stand the way his parents constantly fight, and the way his mother emasculates his father (who allows it); Plato was abandoned by his father as a small child, then essentially by his mother as a teen, and Judy believes that her father no longer loves her. All three are eventually taken home, but one of the officers, Ray Fremick, tells Jim to call if he ever needs someone to talk to. The next day is Jim’ first day of high school in the new town. He sees Judy that morning when she turns down his offer of a ride; instead, she goes with a group of friends that include her boyfriend, Buzz Gunderson. At school, he runs into Plato again, who quickly begins to idolize him. However, he runs afoul of Buzz and his gang during an afternoon field trip to the planetarium. The gang slash a tire on Jim’s car, then try to taunt him into a fight. After a brief skirmish, Buzz challenges Jim to a “Chickie Run” that night at a local bluff. That evening, Jim tries to ask his father for advice on what to do about the Chickie Run, without disclosing its full nature. To his dismay, his father advises him to avoid all conflict – while cleaning up a mess in Jim’s mother’s apron. Jim goes out to the bluff, where Plato is waiting for him. He learns that he and Buzz will each get into a stolen car, then race toward the cliff: the first one to jump out of his car is the “chicken”. During the race, Jim bails out first, safely, but Buzz gets the sleeve of his jacket caught on the door, and is unable to bail out of the car. He plummets over the cliff to his death. Everybody quickly scatters, except for Jim, Plato and Judy. Eventually, Jim drives everybody home.
Back at home, Jim is confronted by his parents, who have heard of the accident on TV. Jim wants to turn himself into the police, but his parents disagree, and advise him to keep quiet. His mother then decides that the family should move again, but Jim resists. During the argument, he repeatedly begs his father to stand up to his mother (and for Jim), but his father doesn’t oblige. Jim then leaves and heads for the police station, where he finds several of Buzz’s gang members – Crunch, Goon and Moose – coming out. At the station, he asks for Fremick, but the officer is out on a call. Jim then returns to his house, where he finds Judy waiting for him. The two finally talk, and quickly develop an attraction. When both discover that the other has no desire to return home, they decide to go to a deserted mansion Plato told Jim about. At the same time, Plato has arrived at his own house, only to also confront Crunch, Goon and Moose. When he makes it into the house, Plato finds a child support check from his father, which further infuriates him. He then grabs the gun he has hidden, and goes to Jim’s house to warn him. When he learns that Jim is not there, he heads for the mansion, where Jim and Judy let him in. The two carouse for a while, and Plato talks about his family. He then falls asleep on the ground outside, and Jim and Judy decide to explore the house. After they leave, Crunch, Goon and Moose arrive and find Plato, whom they begin beating. Plato seems to snap, and uses his gun to fight them off, eventually shooting Moose. When Jim tries to help him, Plato nearly shoots him before running away, shooting at the arriving police. Plato goes back to the Planetarium, where he is quickly surrounded by police, including Fremick. Jim and Judy manage to sneak their way inside, and Jim tries to talk Plato down. When he gives Plato his red jacket, Plato lets him see the gun: Jim silently removes the bullets before giving the gun back. After getting Plato to agree to surrender, Jim tries to negotiate with the police. However, when they see the gun Plato is still holding, the police react, and Plato panics. He runs out of the Planetarium, and the police quickly shooting. Jim is distraught, and sobs over Plato’s body. He is eventually pulled away by his father, who had been out looking for him and had witnessed the entire event. His father promises to be stronger for Jim, who accepts the promise and introduces Judy. As the sun comes up, everybody heads away from the Planetarium.
MY TAKE: While James Dean got top billing for this film, and Sal Mineo was nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar, it seems to me that this movie is actually more about Plato than about Jim. Jim and Judy have family issues, but Plato seems to actually be crazy. At the beginning, he is arrested for shooting a litter of cats. Anybody who is familiar with the history of serial killers knows that this is a huge, flashing warning sign, as it is usually precludes murder of a person. Further evidence comes when Plato becomes obsessed with Jim after only knowing him for a very short time. However, I have to admire Jim for befriending Plato, and for trying to help him out. Plato was obviously crying out for love and attention, and Jim gave it to him. Plato starts to see Jim as a father figure, which is more evidence that he’s losing it, but the final break comes when the boys attack him at the mansion. Plato seems to lose all hold on reality, even failing to recognize Jim. When Jim gets to him in the Planetarium, Plato is extremely childlike, but Jim, bless him, treats him with kindness and understanding. Even though he’s only known Plato for a day, he is aghast at the boy’s murder. The sort of ironic thing about the movie is that Jim has trouble with his father and emotions, but proves to be a pretty awesome, understanding father figure to Plato. In fact, the friendship seems to bring out the best in him, and it eventually leads to his reconciliation with his parents.