The new kid in town, Jim Stark (James Dean, East of Eden), has a knack for getting into trouble. Feeling misunderstood by his bickering parents, Jim finds solace in his friendship with other local misfits, a confused young woman, Judy (Natalie Wood, Splendor in Grass), and a lonely wealthy kid, John “Plato” (Sal Mineo, Exodus).
Reaction & Thoughts:
“I don’t know what to do anymore. Except maybe die.”
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 movie that I’m almost sure it would have made Dean a legend irrespective of the tragic circumstances surrounding his death.
The film remains timeless. I could 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. Dad has always insisted that this was more than a movie; it was an earth-shattering experience. I wasn’t there, but I get it.
Like John Hughes (Sixteen Candles and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) decades later, it’s hard to explain how 40ish filmmaker Nicholas Ray (They Live by Night and Johnny Guitar) managed to understand teenagers so well. Director Ray incisively and poetically creates the ultimate teen angst drama — it’s The Breakfast Club, ’50s style. As Deans howls, “you’re tearing me apart,” a hymn to generational alienation is created.
Written by Stewart Stern (Rachel, Rachel), Irving Shulman (City Across the River) and director Ray, Rebel without a Cause is a 1950s movie through and through, so it is invariably dated in some areas. Ethnocentrism is high (the film narrowly focuses on white suburbia) and the movie’s take on gender roles is passé to say the least.
However, 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., are haunting moments that will forever be seared into your memory. It was all beautifully filmed in CinemaScope and WarnerColor by Ernest Haller (Gone with the Wind), with a terrific music score by Leonard Rosenman (Barry Lyndon) to boot.
The film does a great job establishing the characters’ personalities and their problems. Dean’s Jim is upset that his father isn’t assertive. Judy’s father is a jerk. Plato’s situation is by far the saddest. The poor rich kid has been left alone to be raised by the maid. Neglected, unwanted, unloved, Plato provides this powerful teen-opera with its emotional core — it is very difficult to shake up Plato’s last scenes.
Although the film created a cult around Dean, you can’t underestimate the fine work of 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. Even in comedies, you feel that she has some deep pain in her heart. That makes her so relatable. Mineo also has the kind of fragility that makes you connect with his characters. Dean, Wood and Mineo make a wonderful trio of “misfit toys.”
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
The thing I love most about Rebel Without a Cause is that it doesn’t attempt to solve anything. The film openly and honestly discusses the issues inherent in being an adolescent — it’s called “growing pains” for a reason. I also like the fact that this movie treats the characters with dignity and respect. With Jim Backus (TV’s Gilligan’s Island), Ann Doran (Where Love Has Gone), and a very young Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider) as one of the teenagers. Color, 111 minutes, Not Rated.