"If I had one day when I didn't have to be all confused and I didn't have to feel that I was ashamed of everything. If I felt that I belonged someplace...."
When we are first introduced to Jim Stark, he is in a state that has altered many a teenager. He is extremely intoxicated and eventually taken in by the local police. He is a young man who is very confused. His family is constantly moving from town to town in an attempt to keep him out of trouble. Jim Stark is the antithesis of our romanticized 1950's teenager. From the opening scene alone, we learn that Rebel Without A Cause is not a film that will look romantically toward teenage life. This is a rough and harsh look into several themes that people were not willing to discuss at the time. Rebel is remembered as a great film, but an excellent historical documentation of life in a turbulent point in history.
Some have argued that Rebel has not aged very well, and I cannot honestly disagree. In today's world, the themes and undertones do not really have much power. This was a film that spoke to the baby-boom generation. As the babies of the boom became teens, confusion and boredom became larger problems. The disconnect between teens and adults expanded to an almost unsalvageable distance. Crime and gang rates skyrocketed simply because teens were looking for something to do with their time.
This idea is prominently displayed all throughout Rebel. After a horrible first day of school, Jim is challenged to a chickie-run by the bully of the school, Buzz Gunderson. It is later established that Buzz likes Jim and would like to be his friend. Hearing this, Jim asks "Why do we do this?". To which Buzz answers "You've gotta do something. Don't you?". They are risking their lives for the simple purpose of killing boredom. Lord knows, they cannot get this fulfillment through their home lives.
Jim lives at home with his emasculated father, overbearing mother and domineering grandmother. He is desperate to relate to his father, but he simply cannot for very obvious reasons. In one brutal scene we see Jim's father wearing a frilly yellow kitchen apron in an attempt to serve dinner to his working wife. He drops the dinner plate on the floor and frantically tries to pick it up before she sees. Jim finds this pathetic. He tells his father to leave it there - that she cannot hurt him for dropping a plate. He tries to get his father to stand up for himself, but he cannot. The sadness of it all forces Jim to sit and laugh at his father's misfortune.
But Jim Stark is not the only rebel without a cause in this picture. Natalie Wood plays the beautiful and trouble making, Judy. She is struggling to have a positive relationship with her father. In one scene, she tries to kiss her father before dinner. Embarrassed by it all, her father responds with "What's the matter with you? You're getting too old for that kind of stuff. Girls your age don't do things like that." Judy answers back with "Girls don't love their father? Since when? Since I got to be 16?" It is hinted that her father may have an underlying sexual attraction to his daughter. And though Judy is only looking for affection, her father is not in a position to provide that for her.
And finally, in classic Nicholas Ray fashion, we have Sal Mineo's character in Rebel. Mineo plays John 'Plato' Crawford. He is a disturbed boy from a broken home. His father is dead, or away. His story is always changing. His mother is always away, and he is raised by his housekeeper. Ray and screenwriter Irving Shulman had to have known that Plato was a homosexual character. Like in Johnny Guitar, Ray was able to sneak a homosexual undertone into his film. This was far more difficult to pick up on in 1955, but today it is really obvious.He makes up romantic fantasies about his friendship with Jim. He pretends that he and Jim have been life long friends. In the planetarium he touches Jim's shoulder and whispers in his ear with no concern for image. He is the most compelling and troubled character in the film - and his secret homosexual urges toward Jim lift the picture with melodramatic hands.
Rebel Without a Cause also features one of the most famous performances in all of film history. Jim Stark has become the most remembered and influential character in the short career of James Dean. This film was released shortly after his death - which is almost eery. Dean's acting may not have aged any better than his films, but he assists the film's bubbling awkwardness with this performance. Some say that Dean's work in Rebel resembles a watered down Brando, but I do not see it as that black-and-white.
Dean was a talented actor who would have had an all time great career, but his untimely death kept that from happening. In this picture, he shows his acting range. Along with Brando, Dean helped mold the "new man" of the 50's and 60's. He was smart, sensitive, kind and confused. He made those traits manly. And yes, Jim Stark does lack the raw emotional power of Brando's Stanley Kowalski, but what it lacked in substance it made up for with style.
Rebel Without A Cause is a film about life in the 1950's, made by people who were living in that time. The film warns adults of the growing generational gap. Its willingness to break the rules almost foreshadows the emergence of Elvis Presley, rock and roll and the sexual revolution. With dealings in homosexuality, abandonment, crime, lies and understandings - Rebel Without A Cause is more educational than entertaining. Which is saying something. It is a very entertaining film.
Rebel Without A Cause: A-
My Next Film....Zero for Conduct (Vigo. 1933)