Robert Altman‘s second feature-length film, The James Dean Story (1957), is a documentary made shortly after the death of the actor, co-produced and directed with George W. George. Following the shooting of the doc, the team attempted to get Marlon Brando to narrate the film, but his refusal lead to Altman selling the film to Warner Brothers, who hired Martin Gabel to read from a script written by Rebel Without a Cause co-writer and friend of Dean, Stewart Stern.
Jeff Stafford weighs in on the film’s place in Altman’s oeuvre for Turner Classic Movies:
It was during the making of The James Dean Story that Altman became introduced to the zoom lens which he would soon incorporate into his unique style of filmmaking. He also learned a new technique for presenting archival photographs on film from renown still photographer Louis Clyde Stoumen who called his process “photo motion.” This method dispensed with the traditional presentation of static images, instead adding movement to the photograph as the camera closed-in on specific details in close-up.
Seen today, Altman’s second film is definitely a curiosity piece. While the narration has its share of literary cliches and pretentious phrases – “He prowled through the night like a hunter” – the film is still a moving and often unconventional approach to deciphering the James Dean myth. Altman obviously felt some kinship with the ill-fated actor since he too was a mid-Westerner who found success in Hollywood, but he would later take a less favorable look at the James Dean phenomenon in his own production of Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982).