Cosmic obliteration from above and the precipice on the edge of the world, in between them is high school. The theme is from Whitman ("There Was a Child Went Forth"), one day and two nights in suburbia gives the opera of adolescence and then some. At once hooded and utterly naked, James Dean at the police station is torn apart most mythically, the twitchy personification of "the age when nothing fits." Mr. Magoo in flowery apron stands (or crawls) for adulthood, switchblades against a cobalt sky color a blocky kid's idea of honor, and that's just the first morning of class. Numbness and love are the opposing poles for the girl with daddy issues (Natalie Wood), meanwhile the sidekick (Sal Mineo) has moist Guido Reni eyes and a gun under the pillow. The three cross paths during the hot-rodding duel, and in the most dazzling moment the CinemaScope rectangle is filled with hands reaching out for each other before the abyss. Archie shenanigans as Greek tragedy ("You know something? You read too many comic books") and yet there's the profoundly aching Nicholas Ray gaze, lending the dilemma a sensual and neurotic grandeur. (The benchmark composition finds Dean in a crimson jacket upside down on a couch amidst milk bottle, staircase and flickering television set, unsettled even further by a furious POV tilt.) Wild Boys of the Road and Les Enfants Terribles figure tellingly in the dysfunctional constellation, sincerity in a realm of poses is the prized emotion ("la sincerité et la violence," declares La Chinoise's theater of youth). An Ovidian fever of chickens and minotaurs, the brief candlelight idyll segues right the cataclysm at the Griffith Observatory. "Search the heavens and stand amazed," advises the voice of experience, the camera is high-angled for the closing view of dawn. Look Back in Anger, Cruel Story of Youth, Badlands and innumerable others follow suit. Cinematography by Ernest Haller. With Jim Backus, Ann Doran, Corey Allen, William Hopper, Rochelle Hudson, Dennis Hopper, Edward Platt, Jack Grinnage, Marietta Canty, and Ian Wolfe.
--- Fernando F. Croce