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James Dean: Back on the big screen

As 'Rebel without a Cause' is re-released, Geoffrey Macnab reveals how its star perfected his moody act

When Jim Stark (James Dean) is first seen in Nicholas Ray's Rebel without a Cause (1955), crawling drunkenly along the street and playing with a toy monkey, he is wearing a suit and tie. "You're tearing me apart," he screeches at his bickering parents after they come to pick him up from the police station where he is being held for being drunk and disorderly.

Re-released in a new digital restoration, the film still carries the same seething sense of angst and adolescent rebelliousness that made it such a sensation on its first release, almost 60 years ago. It is also still a thoroughly contradictory affair.

Dean himself remains the most paradoxical of movie stars. On the one hand, he stands for a self-obsessed post-war generation that rejected the hypocrisy of the adult world, chafing against all authority and institutions. Early on in Rebel without a Cause, when he tells a sympathetic cop of his longing for "one day when I didn't have to be all confused and I didn't have to feel that I was ashamed of everything, when I felt I belonged some place", he is echoing thoughts shared by tormented adolescents everywhere.

On the other hand, Dean is also the poster boy for an age of teenage consumerism.

"Don't I buy you everything you want? A bicycle? You get a bicycle, a car," Jim's father (played by James Backus, who also voiced Mr Magoo) plaintively reminds his delinquent son. Jim is not an impoverished kid from the wrong side of the tracks. He is from an affluent middle-class American family. The 17-year-old may scorn the timorousness and moral cowardice of his parents... but that doesn't stop him spending their money or driving to his new LA school in a car they provided.

"You look at Rebel without a Cause and no one I knew had a car. You couldn't identify really with Rebel without a Cause. I literally didn't know anyone who had a car," British producer David Puttnam, a teenager in the mid-Fifties, recalls of his initial reaction to the film. "But what you did identify with was the confusion and the angst."

Dean's early death, aged 24, in a car crash in the year that East of Eden and Rebel without a Cause were released, ensured that his image as the moody outsider has been preserved as if an aspic. When it came to playing troubled, narcissistic loners, he had a febrile intensity that neither the muscular, more belligerent Brando nor the edgy but more reserved Montgomery Clift could match. It is widely assumed that he was playing a version of himself.

Such an assumption does Dean a disservice. He took his craft very seriously. He described his method for portraying Jim Stark as "a constant simplification, a constant gleaning down to the specific point at hand, the line or the story – what the character is trying to do at this moment, constantly trying to find the core".

When in 2005 I interviewed Frank Mazzola, the former LA gang member hired by director Nicholas Ray as a consultant on Rebel without a Cause, he said that Dean was meticulous in the extreme in his preparation for the film.

For around a month, Dean tailed Mazzola wherever he went. He wore the same clothes. They played basketball together, went to coffee bars and Mazzola invited Dean to his home for meals. All the time, Dean was absorbing information, studying Mazzola's gestures and behaviour. "There's a shot of him standing against the wall. He is wearing the red jacket, the T-shirt, the Levi's, the boots. He has one foot up against the wall and his arms are kind of crossed. That's exactly how I used to talk to people," Mazzola claimed.

Rebel without a Cause was a turbulent shoot. Both Nicholas Ray and actor Dennis Hopper had been having an affair with Natalie Wood. There was backbiting and jealousy. Dean's focus didn't waver. Just like Jim Stark in the film, ready to risk his life to prove a point against Buzz, Dean was fearless, especially when behind the wheel. Combined with the vulnerability he also showed on screen, it made him an utterly distinctive screen presence. Dean had enough aggression and swagger to appeal to the guys and a sensitivity combined with extreme good looks that inspired slavish devotion from Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo in Rebel without a Cause – and still enraptures latter-day followers like actor James Franco.

As Elia Kazan noted (in Kazan on Kazan) after a difficult time making East of Eden with him, Dean was insecure, spoiled and sometimes abusive toward colleagues – in short, a "sick kid". That, though, is part of the secret of his enduring popularity. "You can't not like a guy with that much pain in him."

'Rebel without a Cause', 'East of Eden' and 'Giant' are re-released on 18 April, at BFI Southbank and selected cinemas nationwide