Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

“You’re tearing me apart! You say one thing, he says another, and everybody changes back again!”

Synopsis:
Disaffected teen Jim Stark (James Dean) moves to a new town and hopes to befriend his pretty neighbor, Judy (Natalie Wood), who hangs out with a group of toughs (led by Corey Allen). When a “chicky run” contest between Jim and Buzz (Allen) results in Buzz’s tragic death, Dean runs away with Judy and a troubled boy named Plato (Sal Mineo), who looks up to him as a father figure.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this “great, emotionally charged youth film” (directed by Nicholas Ray) remains an enduring cult favorite, in large part because “generations of young men [and women] have identified with the misunderstood Jim Stark.” Method actor James Dean — who made only three films before his tragic death in a car accident at the age of 24 — plays a “vulnerable, self-destructive character [who] fits his off-screen image”; indeed, he perfectly captures the edginess of alienated teens everywhere who long for acceptance and love. Equally impressive are both Natalie Wood (a former child star who “aged” beautifully into teenagehood) as a guarded young “hood” who gradually reveals her vulnerability to Dean, and Sal Mineo as Jim’s tragic young protege “Plato”, whose intense desire for a father figure (and latent homosexual longings) cause him to latch onto Jim with unwise desperation. Other supporting actors throughout the film are fine as well; I’m particularly fond of Jim Backus (Thurston Howell on “Gilligan’s Island”) as Dean’s “emasculated” father, who clearly wants the best for his son but simply doesn’t understand what Jim needs (surely many parents of teens can relate to this dilemma!).

Several critics (see DVD Savant’s review, for instance) have pointed out that Rebel‘s screenplay is undeniably dated, with its abundant Freudian overtones — all troubles ultimately rest on the follies of inadequate parental figures — coming across as terribly heavy-handed. With that said, I believe the film’s melodramatic structure and tone ultimately work in its favor: the spiraling series of events depicted in the film (Jim’s “arrest”, his first day at a new high school, the fatal chicky run, and the climactic shoot-out) all take place within one 24-hour period, and are meant to demonstrate the fact that teenage angst not only feels all-consuming, but can quickly lead to unexpectedly grave consequences. While Rebel Without a Cause is undeniably a downer (those final scenes are tough to watch), its status as a culturally iconic movie makes it must-see viewing for all film fanatics; and — thanks to Dean’s charismatic presence — it will likely continue to endure as a cult favorite.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • James Dean as Jim Stark
    Rebel Dean
  • Natalie Wood as Judy
    Rebel Wood
  • Sal Mineo as Plato
    Rebel Mineo
  • Jim Backus as Jim’s well-meaning but “emasculated” father
    Rebel Backus
  • The infamous “chicky run” scene
    Rebel Chicky Run
  • Good use of Los Angeles locales, such as the Griffith Observatory
    Rebel Observatory
  • Effective use of symbolic colors (particularly red)
    Rebel Red

Must See?
Yes. This undisputed classic of ’50s cinema should be seen at least once by every film fanatic. Discussed at length in Peary’s Cult Movies (1981).

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(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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One Response to “Rebel Without a Cause (1955)”

  1. A no-brainer classic must; iconic, influential.

    ~that said, I admit it’s not a personal favorite. Odd, since I’m a huge Nicholas Ray fan and this is one of his most well-known flicks. It actually *should* appeal to me more since it’s a quintessential ‘outsider’ film. But I admire it more than I relate to it.

    I suppose I feel it’s a little heavy-handed, but then it probably has to be to get its point across. It was made at a time when the territory it explores required “out of the cage” impact. I appreciate that. But I also suppose I would appreciate a little more shading; to me, the film has a powerful message but the characters in it somehow come off a little one-dimensional. Perhaps, that is, everyone but the main character – which compensates for a lot.

    That’s not to say that the main performances are lacking (even if some of the ‘highschoolers’ seem a tad long in the tooth). Ray gets committed work from his cast. And, of course, Dean’s overriding contribution is undeniable.

    My favorite sequence (an extended one) comes when Dean returns home from the ‘chicky run’ and tries to explain to his parents about how he feels about being part of someone’s death. My runner-up fave comes midway when the film suddenly lightens up completely: Dean, Wood and Mineo have created their own little family secretly in the abandoned house.

    The film’s finale packs a considerable punch and is very moving.

    Cult film enthusiasts will note:

    – Wood’s parents are played by William Hopper (later of ‘The Bad Seed’ fame) and Rochelle Hudson (who had appeared in Wellman’s ‘Wild Boys of the Road’ and several other memorable films, and would go on to co-star in ‘Strait-Jacket’).

    -10 years later, Mineo would enter cult nirvana in ‘Who Killed Teddy Bear?’ (By the way, Mineo’s gay nature is handled and played intriguingly well in ‘Rebel…’, but I can’t help but point out: inside his school locker is a small photo of Alan Ladd, maybe from ‘Shane’. It seems a bit typical that Plato would pick a blond.)

    – Dennis Hopper, lurking around as a classmate, would, of course, go on to many films – plenty of cult films among them.

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