The new kid in town, Jim Stark (James Dean, East of Eden), has a knack for getting into trouble. Jim’s odd behavior quickly attacks the attention of the school’s bullies, which lead to more trouble. Feeling misunderstood by his bickering parents, Jim finds solace in his friendship with other equally confused local youngsters, Judy (Natalie Wood, Splendor in Grass) and John “Plato” (Sal Mineo, Exodus).
Reaction & Thoughts:
This is the movie that turned actor James Dean into a deity. One could speculate about how much his premature death contributed to the myth, but Rebel without a Cause is such a marvelous piece of pop-culture iconography that I’m almost sure this movie would have made Dean a legend irrespective of the tragic circumstances surrounding his death.
After multiple viewings, Rebel without a Cause still gives me goosebumps. I can’t put my finger on it, but this is one of the rare movie gems that don’t age with neither time nor repeated viewings. I can only imagine what people thought at the time of its release. My dad, who was a freshman in high school when the movie came out, lights up every time I mention the film. He never misses an opportunity to tell me how much the movie meant to him. My old man has always insisted that this was more than a movie; it was an earth-shattering experience. I wasn’t there, but I get it, I really get it.
Like John Hughes (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) decades later, it’s hard to explain how fortyish writer & director Nicholas Ray (Johnny Guitar) managed to understand teenagers better than their parents. Ray incisively and poetically, creates the ultimate teen angst drama — it’s The Breakfast Club, ’50s style. When Deans howls, “you’re tearing me apart,” a hymn to generational alienation was created.
There is robust symbolism and unforgettable imagery in the movie. The scenes at the planetarium, the knife fight, the “chicken” car race, the empty swimming pool, etc., they are haunting, memorable moments. It was all beautifully filmed in CinemaScope & WarnerColor by Ernest Haller (Gone with the Wind), with a terrific music score by Leonard Rosenman (Barry Lyndon) to boot.
Rebel without a Cause, written by Stewart Stern (Rachel, Rachel) and Irving Shulman, is a 1950s movie through and through so it is invariably dated in some key areas. Ethnocentrism is high (the film narrowly focuses on white suburbia) and the movie’s idea of bravery is passe to say the least.
Also, the kids’ problems don’t sound that bad. Considering the awful things today’s kids have to face, the problems of the young people in the film aren’t terribly bad. Dean is upset that his father is no more assertive. Not cool, but not a tragedy either. Wood’s father is a jerk. Again, not great, but hardly anything to lose your mind over. Mineo’s situation is the saddest. The poor rich kid has been left alone to be raised by the maid. Neglected, unwanted, unloved, Mineo’s Plato provides this teen-opera with its emotional core — it is very difficult to shake up Plato’s last scene.
Although the film created a cult around Dean, Rebel without a Cause really belongs to Wood and Mineo. This was Wood’s breakthrough role — you can literally see the excellent child actor mature into a superb adult thespian. There is always something sad about Wood. She is what I call “an old soul.” Even in comedies, you feel that she has some deep pain in her heart. That makes her so human, so relatable. Mineo also has the kind of fragility that makes your connect with his characters. Dean, Wood and Mineo make a wonderful trio of “misfit toys.”
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
One thing that I loved most about Rebel without a Cause is that it doesn’t attempt to solve anything. It openly, honestly discusses the issues inherent in being an adolescent — it’s called “growing pains” for a reason. I also liked the fact that this movie about teenagers, for teenagers, is never condescending to its target audience. Rebel without a Cause is simply a great movie. With Jim Backus (Thurston Howell in TV’s Gilligan’s Island), Ann Doran (Where Love Has Gone), Edward Platt (Chief in TV’s Get Smart) William Hopper (Paul Drake in TV’s Perry Mason) and a very young Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider) as one of the teenagers. Color, 111 minutes, Not Rated.