A poster for Nicholas Ray's 1955 drama 'Rebel Without a Cause' starring James Dean.
Movie Poster Image Art / Getty Images
By Lily Rothman
October 27, 2015

When Rebel Without a Cause was released 60 years ago, it was almost exactly a month after James Dean’s dramatic and tragic death shook Hollywood—and solidified the late actor’s celebrity.

The death of its star gave the film an aura of consequence, but the drama was already grounded in reality, TIME’s critic noted shortly after its release. It was “a reasonably serious attempt, within the limits of commercial melodrama, to show that juvenile delinquency is not just a local outbreak of tenement terror but a general infection of modern U.S. society.” The plot was fairly straightforward—in a pleasant suburb, a teenager reacts to the soullessness of his parents by tempting death—but, the review continued, it had a point to make, and a star worthy of making it:

The strong implication of this picture is that the real delinquency is not juvenile but parental. The point may be obvious and only a part of the problem, but it is well worth propounding. The best thing about the film, in any case, is James Dean, the gifted actor who made his movie start in East of Eden, and was killed last month at 24 in an automobile accident. In this, the second of his three movie roles—Giant will probably be released next year—there is further evidence that Actor Dean was a player of unusual sensibility and charm.

But Dean wasn’t the only thing that lent the movie heft. It got its title from a 1944 book by Robert Mitchell Lindner, which presented the real criminal psychology case of a 21-year-old man serving time for the actions he undertook as, in TIME’s words, “a grownup infant with no self-restraint and a craving for instant satisfactions.”

Read the full review, here in the TIME Vault: The New Pictures

Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com.

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