Hollywood Rebels' Movies on DVD: James Dean & Steve McQueen

James Dean
Hollywood Rebels: James Dean ca. 1955.

Hollywood Rebels' movies on DVD: James Dean in 'Rebel Without a Cause' & Steve McQueen in 'Bullitt'

James Dean's cult status was surely not hurt by his death at the age of 24 – shortly after reaching stardom – in a road accident in 1955. Except for a handful of bit parts in the early 1950s, Dean's cinematic legacy consists of a mere three films, all of which have a special place in film history, all of which have both their fans and their detractors, and all of which are part of Warner Home Video's DVD set “The Complete James Dean Collection.”

As for Dean's earnest, oftentimes mannered performances in two of those films (Rebel Without a Cause and Giant), they're no better – and no worse, really – than the work of countless other teen and pseudo-teen actors before or since.

James Dean movies

Of James Dean's three movies – Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Elia Kazan's East of Eden (1955), and Academy Award-winner George Stevens' Giant (1956) – the last title is probably the best one. Based on Edna Ferber's novel, Giant is certainly the biggest in scope, covering both several decades and lots of (Texan) wide open spaces. Unfortunately, Dean's highly mannered performance is one of the film's weakest points, though Academy members surely thought otherwise: both James Dean and co-star Rock Hudson were nominated for Oscars. (Curiously, Elizabeth Taylor was bypassed in the Best Actress category; Dean and Hudson lost to Yul Brynner for The King and I.)

Granted, East of Eden, adapted from a novel by John Steinbeck, has its moments and boasts a first-rate cast that includes Julie Harris and Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Jo Van Fleet, but the film isn't quite as emotionally explosive as its makers intended it to be.

As for Rebel Without a Cause, it consists of a series of “rebellious youth” clichés, and remains of interest chiefly because its three young stars met untimely deaths. Besides James Dean, Rebel Without a Cause features Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo, both of whom are young and pretty and madly in love with Dean's misunderstood youth.

In addition to Dean's three starring vehicles, Warner's James Dean DVD box set offers countless bonus features, including commentary by Giant screenwriter Ivan Moffat and filmmaker George Stevens Jr.

Steve McQueen movies on DVD

Steve McQueen was one of the top film stars of the 1960s and early 1970s. Though best remembered as one of the leads in big, loud action movies such as The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963), The Getaway (1972), and the hellish bore The Towering Inferno (1974), McQueen was usually at his best in smaller efforts such as Love with the Proper Stranger (1963), in which he gives a sensitive and quite likable performance as the (Italian-American?!) man who impregnates Natalie Wood, and The Cincinnati Kid (1965), playing opposite (and against) fellow card shark Edward G. Robinson.

Anyhow, you now have the chance to easily check out both Steve McQueen “types,” as last May Warner Home Video released a DVD box set featuring six McQueen movies, “The Essential Steve McQueen Collection.” Included are Bullitt (1968) Two-Disc Special Edition, The Cincinnati Kid, The Getaway Deluxe Edition, Never So Few (1959), Papillon (1973), and Tom Horn (1980).

Of those, Peter Yates' thrilling Bullitt and Norman Jewison's multi-star The Cincinnati Kid – McQueen, Robinson, Joan Blondell, Tuesday Weld, Ann-Margret – vie for the best-of-the-pack slot. Directed by Sam Peckinpah, The Getaway is a mindless but enjoyable badgers-chase-cool cats romp, with Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw as the cool cats and the rest of the cast as the badgers; Franklin J. Schaffner's Papillon is an overlong Devil's Island-set tale whose saving grace is one of McQueen's best performances; while the box office disappointment Tom Horn is an honorable attempt at a thought-provoking Western, though one that, however handsomely mounted, fails to reach its lofty goals.

The less said about the military melodrama Never So Few the better. John Sturges, the highly capable director of Bad Day at Black Rock and The Magnificent Seven is to blame for that film's directionlessness. McQueen has an early supporting role; Frank Sinatra and Gina Lollobrigida are the two miscast leads.

'The Essential Steve McQueen Collection' DVD extras

Of note, the Bullitt DVD has commentary by director Peter Yates, and includes two documentary features: The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing, narrated by Kathy Bates, and Steve McQueen: The Essence of Cool, directed by Mimi Freedman. Among the other commentaries in “The Essential Steve McQueen Collection” are Norman Jewison's for The Cincinnati Kid, and a “virtual” audio commentary for The Getaway, with stills featuring McQueen, Ali MacGraw, and Sam Peckinpah.

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