That Rebel Without a Cause was such a success upon its initial 1955 release, and that it still stands as a hugely influential classic of American cinema, is not just a result of James Dean’s most iconic performance, nor is it simply the outcome of director Nicholas Ray’s talents. Why this film is truly a triumph has more to do with how superbly it encapsulates the artistic inclinations of these two particular artists. This is the film Dean and Ray were destined to make. And this was the time to make it.
Ray had been focusing on the outcasts, the rebels, and the loners since his first feature, They Live By Night. This emphasis would continue through In a Lonely Place and Johnny Guitar, before Rebel Without a Cause, and Bigger Than Life, The True Story of Jesse James and even King of Kings after. But nowhere is this sense of solitary angst and alienation more potent than in this exemplary tale of tortured youth. Sterling Hayden’s titular character in Johnny Guitar utters the phrase, “I’m a stranger here myself” (supposedly a tentative title for nearly every Ray picture), but Dean embodies it.
Similarly, Dean, the most famous immediate post-Brando performer of torment and frustration, brought all he had to this role. His abilities were already on display in East of Eden, released just a few months prior, where he was also a young man trying to make his way in a complicated and confusing world, but where Rebel works so well, and why it lasts, is how palpable the emotion is. Dean, as Jim Stark, combines the weariness and anger of Brando with the sensitivity and vulnerability of Montgomery Clift. He’s the new kid in town, he doesn’t feel he belongs, and he’s not welcomed with open arms; he’s desperately searching, for something, for somebody.
From Dean’s improvisatory introduction, where, in the early morning hours, he drunkenly rolls around in the street with a toy monkey, to goofing at the planetarium by mooing like a cow, he is a case study in misbehavior. Jim and his associates are just high schoolers, after all. Their immaturity is evident, if not anywhere else, in just the fact that they would risk lives for being called a “chicken.” But kids will be kids, and to its credit, Rebel does much to understand this mindset. The film expertly stays in the vantage point of the youth, visually in many cases and in terms of its narrative concentration. This is no doubt why the film struck a chord in 1955 and why it retains its power, even after some elements have dated. Ray, with his original treatment, and screenwriters Stewart Stern and Irving Shulman, created a group of people and a story that tapped into a generational concern of post-war adolescent malaise. And yet many of these feelings haven’t gone away. When Dean’s rebel yell of “You’re tearing me apart” echoes through the police station, that declaration still resonates. Boredom and a misconstrued sense of obligatory activity also permeate the film. The deadly “chickie run,” which Jim takes part in for “honor,” is something he and adversary-turned-potential-friend Buzz (Corey Allen) do only because, well, “you gotta do something.”
In its exploration of these young men and women, the film attempts to find possible causes for their behavior. What, more than anything, seems to be at the root of their unrest is an unstable family. Be it Jim’s domineering mother and embarrassingly submissive dad, or the dismissive father of Natalie Wood’s Judy, or the broken home of Sal Mineo’s John “Plato” Crawford, the three protagonists are urgently in need of parental attention they are not otherwise getting. Jim comes close with the understanding police officer Ray Fremick (Edward Platt), but ultimately, he isn’t around when he’s needed most. For all its sympathy toward these kids, their feelings and their desires, and for the casual cool of Jim’s rebelliousness, Rebel Without a Cause is really a film stressing an importance of typical familial structure. That’s why, when they are alone, away from adults and left to their own devices, Jim, Plato, and Judy form a mock family with each adapting domestic roles and behaviors. Rebel as they might, they seek ordered stability.
In terms of Rebel Without a Cause’s appearance, this is Nicholas Ray at his finest. He had already proven himself to be exceptionally adept in his use of color — Johnny Guitar and its baroque tone was evidence enough of this — and here, the bold strokes are equally vibrant. The red of Judy’s lipstick and coat early in the picture is later matched by Dean’s trademark red jacket, and in a film where the Warnercolor palette is otherwise relatively subdued in its depiction of stolid suburban life, these flashes of dynamic color are distinguished. It’s hard to imagine the film in its originally intended black and white.
Where Ray truly brings a visual dynamism to the picture is in his use of CinemaScope. This was his first time using the format and it was a natural fit. Ray seems to instinctively grasp how the wide screen can both isolate figures when placed in the direct center or far to one side, and how it can fit a cluster of individuals and setting components, packing the frame. The former works especially well when Dean is the focal point, when his slinking, contorting body is given free reign; the latter is most effective in shots of the intimidating gang or of the confining family surroundings. Ray’s framing also works well when shooting down halls or composing in multiple planes of depth. Even more striking is when the camera suddenly tilts during a particularly dramatic moment; that wide screen suddenly canted is quite extraordinary.
While Nicholas Ray aficionados will identify Rebel Without a Cause with the director, most people, then and now, will see James Dean. This is certainly understandable. As other actors (the gang members, especially Allen) do their best Brandoesque posturing, Dean is the only one who brings anything new to the screen. Today, his persona may be more notable than his performance, but in either case, it is he who carries the picture. Mineo, as the meek and quite disturbed Plato (he’s arrested for shooting puppies!), and Wood as Judy, the genuinely good girl who only unwittingly goes bad sometimes, do show their early talents in the film though. Indeed, they would both be nominated for Oscars; Dean would too, but for East of Eden.
On the heels of the Nov. 1 world restoration premiere of Rebel Without a Cause at The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the recently released Blu-ray version of the film looks fantastic, the aforementioned colors and compositions better than ever. The disc’s bonus features are also excellent, ranging from screen tests and deleted scenes to a commentary by author Douglas L. Rathgeb and “making-of” documentaries. The most salient feature, though, is a brief PSA-style promo where Gig Young interviews Dean about safe driving and not speeding. In it, Dean concludes, “The life you might save might be mine.” Knowing what would befall this rising talent shortly after he uttered these words makes this brief inclusion hauntingly tragic.
REVIEW FROM: Sound on Sight