The James Dean Story (Robert Altman & George W. George / 1957):

An "insignificant" early item, reviewers still maintain, even after Robert Altman himself proved otherwise 25 years later by analyzing the same subject ("a hero made of their loneliness") from another angle in Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. An essay on the "hero and legend" sides of the star, assembled not long after his death; the Giant premiere is pondered before the return to Fairmount, Dean's Indiana hometown, where the investigation is primed by putting the camera on the tracks as a train rushes toward it and panning left to a hearse. Grandpa and Grandma Winslow recall Jimmy the baby, high school teachers and UCLA frathouse chums weigh in until it's time for the restless youth to head out to New York City and the Actors Studio, and stardom. The challenge is to generate excitement out of rare but lackluster footage (a good minute is spent on a former roommate going through an old box of belongings and laundry bills), Altman and George rise to the occasion by "dynamic exploration" of photographs, montage techniques appreciated by Alfred Hitchcock (who hired young Altman for his TV series) and Chris Marker (who elaborated on them in La Jetée). James Dean emerges as a hepcat-naïf, omnivorously and achingly passionate, painter, sculptor, bohemian, biker, bullfighter and, finally, galvanic screen presence. As much as the horrid Martin Gabel narration attempts to pin him down ("He looked at the ocean, and was jealous of its power..."), the star remains an enigmatic object, dodging facile interpretation. The movie gropes for pat answers, but Altman already feels the value of human mysteries -- he re-creates Dean's fateful final drive to Salinas as a POV tracking shot, then leaves the star in an invaluable East of Eden screen test, still in the shadows. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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