A film review by Craig J. Koban
RANK: # 8
REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE
50th Anniversary Retrospective
1955, no MPAA rating, 117 mins.
James Dean: Jim Stark / Natalie Wood: Judy / Sal Mineo: Plato
Directed by Nicholas Ray / Written by Stewart Stern
"Dream as if youíll live forever, live as if youíll die today."
In terms of the great and everlasting iconography of the American cinema, only a handful of key moments and images still manage to maintain an ethereal and transfixing allure.
There was Orson Welles speaking the now immortal word ďRosebudĒ in CITIZEN KANE; the conclusion of CASABLANCA; the prehistoric apeís bone instantly changing into a futuristic nuclear satellite in space in Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY; the first transition from the sepia toned Kansas to the Technicolor brilliance of the magical land in THE WIZARD OF OZ; the jungle helicopter assault in APOCALYPSE NOW; the opening shot of the immeasurably huge spacecraft in the first STAR WARS; and finally the appearance of Jim Stark, sullen faced, wearing his red jacket and smoking a cigarette, in Nicolas Rayís 1955 film REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE.
If there was ever a film that created and solidified a starís status as a cult icon, then surely it was REBEL. People today may or may not have ever seen a film featuring James Dean, but when one mentions that name instant images come to mind, even to the lay cinemaphile. Most celebrities could never achieve that level of mythic popularity during a career that spanned decades. Dean achieved that in a few short years and, amazingly, only made three major theatrical films. Dean, it could be said, was born to be great and destined to die an immortal Hollywood symbol.
REBEL opened at the Astor Theatre in New York on October 29, 1955, nearly one month after Dean died in a horrible highway car crash. The film itself is remember for many things, but there should never be any denying the fact that it created a legend in its young star that still manages to permeate our popular culture. The colorful and vibrant Cinemascope production is one of those rare works that succeeds and is carried on the shoulders of its young talent. For a film that had then modest intentions and one where its star was dreadfully ill throughout most of its production (Dean was devastated by malaria), REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE still remains to be one of cinemaís most powerful, influential, and transcending entertainments. The film has dated, to be sure, and itís content and message seems uniformly undemanding and minor by todayís standards. However, make no mistake about it, this is one of the first great films about youthful defiance, and it made people think when it was released.
Deanís appearance and work in REBEL now carries a sort of eerie and ironic milieu. I remember watching one of those studio information fluff pieces that was shot during the beginning of the production of REBEL where Dean shows up and makes a rather odd and peculiar public service announcement. In it he comments about how he likes to drive cars, but always felt the need to keep it easy and drive with relative restraint. He then speaks into the camera and sort of quietly pleads with Americaís youth to drive safely and with all due care and attention. With hindsight being twenty-twenty, Deanís comments here are more than creepy and reeking of foreshadowing doom. I have never yet seen a more horribly ironic comment made by an actor.
That being said, Deanís thoughts at the time sort of naturally weave into REBELís story. The American family/social landscape in the early 1950's was seen to be in a rather perpetual state of equilibrium. People perceived things as being on the level of the status quo and most saw that the family unit was in relatively good shape. Images of the healthy, stable nuclear family unit permeated the TV and movie screens, which only further helped to extrapolate from their viewers feelings of virtual ease and comfort. Moms and dads were noble and virtuous people that always had their caring and understanding hands on the pulse of their children's concerns. Children themselves were painted as submissive and obedient members of the family hierarchy. Then came REBEL, and despite its overt peachiness and harsh content that does not remotely feel as ruthless or controversial as some social issues today, the film completely eroded societyís sense of confidence in the family unit. It was, for lack of a better phrase, a huge wake-up pill.
Most films pre-REBEL never once felt the need to polarize audiences and explore the segment of misunderstood and alienated middle class youth. The youth in REBEL were not of the respectful, agreeable, and docile kind that blindly followed their parentsí leads and respected all authority without a thought in the world. No, the teens in this film were a different breed that American audiences were not exposed to Ė they were defiant, insubordinate, seditious, and highly suspicious of older authority figures that were above them on the societal chain. If anything, REBEL was a film that was a bold, daring, and stylized look at the new non-conformity of the American teen, who was presented in the film as being personas that felt that their parents were incapable of relating to them and were, in most cases, ineffectual. Jim Stark, as played by Dean, became the inevitable poster boy for this new breed of adolescent rage, apathy, resilience, and confused angst.
This highly reactionary film made quite the stir in the 50ís, so itís crucial that contemporary audiences look at this film through he proper lenses. I have always advocated looking at films in context. Our modern eyes and perceptions can easily taint the overall effectiveness of past works. In the case of REBEL, looking at it now, the film seems incredibly tame and silly. The problems faced with American teenagers in that film are - no pun intended - childís play in comparison to the types of struggles that the many kids go through today. Yes, the existentialist funk that Stark goes through in REBEL may seem asinine and lame to us today, but really stop and consider what the film was saying and, more importantly, when it was saying it.
Jimís general malaise with his parents, the world, and existence in general should not have been the shock it was to audiences of the time. After all, a 1944 book of the same name, written by Robert Linder, spoke vehemently about the concerns of escalating juvenile delinquency. The screenplay for the film (by Stewart Stern that based on an original treatment by director Nicholas Ray), was based primarily on Linderís own case studies. The film was originally to be called THE BLIND RUN, based on one of the vignettes of the same title in Linderís book. The message of Linderís writings are fairly clear cut Ė that the youth then were rebellious and idealistic and were in a perpetual state of looking for a ďcauseĒ, or in other words, honesty and decency in a brutal, uncompromising, and largely cruel and obsessively hypocritical world. This overall message is expounded in one early scene in REBEL when Dean lashes out at his parents; in one of cinemaís most memorable lines ever Ė He screams out to them, ďYou're tearing me apart! You say one thing, he says another, and everybody changes back again.Ē
REBEL is more or less constructed like a classical Shakespearian tragedy:
- The opening moments of a dysfunctional conflict between parents and their children.
- The interaction between most of the teenage characters, both good and bad.
- A climatic challenge between a few of the troubled teens
- A general and overall feeling of ease and peace after the challenge
- The final tragedy where lives are saved and lost and the ones that are left are mentally and emotional brought together to deal with and try to make sense of all what has happened before.
As the film opens weíre introduced to all of the principle characters at the local city police department. Jim (Dean) is brought in after being picked up from the streets. He has obviously been drinking and is clearly drunk. It becomes abundantly clear that his early conversations with the officers display his overall discontentment, especially with his parents. Nearby, another troubled teen, Judy (Natalie Wood) is also being questioned by another officer. She is revealed as a constant runaway. The police are speaking to yet another teen that is brought in, Plato (Sal Mineo, in his screen debut). Plato is nervous and very shy, despite discussing the reasons why he shot a litter of puppies. No parents are there with him, which only heightens his feelings of loneliness, isolation, and hopelessness.
Jim does not hate his parents in the traditional sense of the word Ė he hates what they have become. Jimís dad, an emasculated figure if there ever was one, is played by Jim Backus and I think he has the most thankless and tricky role in the film. He is the focal point of most of Jimís pent up antagonism. His mother, played by Virginia Brissac, is the dominator of the relationship and clearly rules the family. Both the mother and the father are parental figures that seem clueless and give Jim a love that seems largely artificial and smothering, which only fuels Jimís anger. Jim resents the fact that his father plays second fiddle to his motherís domineering posturing. At one point he tells the officer, ďIf he had guts to knock Mom cold once, then maybe she'd be happy, and she'd stop picking on him." The film turns over the tradition patriarchical family unit on its head, and Jim despises the fact his father is a compliant lout that takes all of his momís abuse. "She eats him alive, and he takes it," Jim further tells the cop.
There is one vile little scene that shows why Jim is so detached and displeased with his fatherís role in the family. During an early morning breakfast the father, in a business suit, is also wearing a frilly apron and cleans up after a spill. The role reversal of the family unit, of the time, is fairly clear-cut, and Jimís failure to relate to and understand his father wounds him immensely. At a time when he feels he needs adequate male role models, his father is not even enough of a ďmanĒ to assist him. To contemporary eyes, there is nothing wrong , per se, with role reversal in the family unit and the father assuming a motherly role...but just think of the implications to a 1950's teen.
The day after the police incident, Jim goes and attends his new school. He meets up again with Judy, but is rudely and coyly brushed off. She hangs with the super popular cool clique of students. Jim, looking for affection, understanding, and a sense of belongingness to someone, tries to win over her and her group of friendsí affection. They are very quick to dismiss Jimís early antics, and unfortunately for him, he soon crosses paths with Buzz, the leader of the group. The have a small battle that later escalates to a major confrontation later that evening with a disastrous end. Judy now is a torn young woman Ė she must decide between her popular friends or the boy that she is secretly attracted to.
As the film moves though its narrative, Jim develops a sort of surrogate family relationship with both Judy and Plato. Judy seems to have it just as bad as Jim does on the home front. In one contemptible scene she arrives in the familyís kitchen and gives her father a rather innocent peck on the cheek. Her father then gets unusually upset. Her affection for her parental figures has essentially been displaced, seeing as her own father disapproves of her display of lover for him. As for Plato, he really has no parental figures and seems to be the most lost of all of them. His father may be dead, and he seems to change his story about his father daily. His lack of a strong male presence may or may not have contributed to his closeted homosexuality (one hidden aspect I read into the film, more on that later). He, nevertheless, clings to both Jim and Judy rather strongly. He is the most loved-starved of the trio.
There is one scene in particular that cuts to the heart of the film. After trying to deal with the repercussions of a tragedy that he indirectly was a part of, Jim goes home and tries to get some sort of guidance from his motherly dad. The dad still is wearing an apron, which becomes a gross symbol to Jim. He not only gets into a rather violent argument with both parents, but he stops on his way out of the house and sees a portrait of his mother lying on the ground. Why it is on the ground? Who knows, maybe so he can kick it defiantly in a fit of anger and resentment. Okay, this seems rather contrived, but the payoff and emblematic overtones work marvelously for the film.
Jim, Plato, and Judy grow to the point of respective reliance on one another until they seem to give and reciprocate the love that they feel they lack. Their level of acceptance of one another is kind of disturbing. They are complete strangers who know very little of one another, but they share the bond of compassion for each otherís dilemmas. Plato and Jimís relationship seems even more fascinating, and it contains, if looked at under close scrutiny under modern eyes, to have obvious homosexual undertones, and many scenes hint at it strongly. It becomes clear that Plato secretly loves Jim, and the final act of the film, which ends in yet another tragedy, only heightens the sense of dramatic and perplexing misfortune.
The film breathes completely on the levels of the parent-child relationship. Jim resents his father because he canít stand up to his mother. He hates both because they are figures that canít understand him. Platoís mother and father seem completely absent, and Judyís father apparently finds her so unappealing that he, at least by her recollection, called her a dirty tramp. Itís no wonder these three fall into a tight inner circle. They create a social buffer to a world that they feel is ripe with inconvenience and torment.
If the themes of the film were not haunting enough for its time, then the futures of its three leads were even more so. All three died under tragic circumstances Ė one died in a car accident, one in a drowning accident, and the other by a vicious stabbing. Despite these odd and strange coincidences, the film proved to be an ultimate career springboard for all of them. The film was Woodís first non-child role and the then unknown Mineo launched his career with REBEL.
And as for Dean, the film has proven its influence on his posthumous reputation and status in the annals of Hollywood lore. Hot off the heels of another films about hot headed young people Ė THE WILD ONE of 1953, which starred Marlon Brando Ė Deanís performance in REBEL may seem forced and mannered by todayís standards. However, his work in REBEL was yet another signifier of the new breed of natural ďmethodĒ acting that actors like Brando were perfecting that would subsequently alter the landscape of cinematic performances for the next 50 years. Dean's performance, compared to the others actors of the film, seems more fluid, natural, and frank. They have been better performances, to be sure, to emerge in films afterwards, but Deanís work here and the early roles of Brando created a precedent that is still revered today.
The film was not a complete critic darling in 1955. It only received three Oscar nominations and failed to win any. Deanís influential performance alone did not win him a nomination, but he did receive one posthumously for his role in his final film Ė GIANT Ė that film being released a year after his death. It does not matter which performance he was ultimately nominated for, because most film scholars would agree that REBEL was his most loved, viewed, and iconic role. Jim Stark created the legend of James Dean, and few roles have that level of command, supremacy and everlasting reach.
REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE has dated poorly, but if watched correctly in the right frame of mind, the film was an enormously reactionary and was considered one of the best films of the 50ís about rebellious and restless adolescence. The film itself spawned a series of inferior films that exploited this subject matter and theme more than it did. In retrospect, there are other hidden issues the film deals with that can be read into today could not be embellished more in 1955 with the stern production code. Plato, to me, is obviously homosexual and seems bothered by many of the noteworthy issues of closeted homosexuals of the 1950ís. Clearly, the film disguises any overt pointing out of this fact, but itís undeniably there. In this way, one can read more into REBEL today than most 1950's audiences probably ever did.
Nevertheless, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE remains a seminal work in American cinema, and the anguished howls of the depressed and angry James Dean in the lead role redefined the Hollywood leading man. He, along with other role models of the time like Brando and even later with Elvis Pressley and the Beatles, changed how we saw and viewed young people. They were not straight arrows, but ones that could be trendsetters that rocked the boat and altered forever the social status quo in terms of the fact that they did not baselessly fall into rigid conformity. How sad it seems that a tragic car crash caused by one young manís recklessness created a legend that he himself would never have lived to adopt and encapsulate. I guess, in this way, REBEL should be remembered as a strangely paradoxical and powerful film. Not too many can brag that they fostered and spawned a sociological change in thought patterns of Americans and James Dean, the actor that lived fast and died young, remained famous a half a century after he died.
A film legend, indeed.