Director: Nicholas Ray
Starring: James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo
This could have been very typical and clichéd. Nicholas Ray however manages to make a compelling social commentary with layered characters in this incredible and unique movie. This film plays out in a familiar American life setting. A teenager begins a new life in the suburban neighborhood where his parents placed him. He is subsequently menaced by bullies in leather coats, meets a love interest instantaneously and yells at his parents. Probably how many of us envision a 1950’s story.
James Dean, in one of his few major roles before his unfortunate passing, is the teenager. His character, Jim Stark, is angst-driven and confused, friendly but easily provoked and constantly needing to prove his masculinity. His love interest is Judy (Natalie Wood), who’s frustrated from parental resentment and neglect. The school’s loner, Plato (Sal Mineo), has similar issues, but his mental illness causes him to handle things a bit differently. The three are very different in terms of wealth and social status but come together as the plot unfolds.
Rebel Without a Cause is a film of a truly bizarre nature. It plays on the overprotectiveness of American youth that a whole generation has been guilty of and teases the results of it. Stark’s parents seem to be painfully clueless on how to raise a child. Both of them cowards, his mother is a cold bitter woman who infantilizes her son and is convinced that moving will solve every problem he has. The next place will always be better. His father is her spineless whipping post. When backed into a corner his mode of attack is to make a pros and cons list. He can also be seen wearing a flowery apron at times. When the drunken and melodramatic line “You’re tearing me apart!” is uttered by Jim, you’ll definitely chuckle. But you’ll also understand and wonder how he survived this far in a world like this.
Rambunctious characters are given that trait as their sole attribute. They pick on others because they’re there. Many of the lines and acting are purposefully adolescent and melodramatic. Sex is never mentioned going so far as to show that Judy’s parent’s beds are separate. I couldn’t help but laugh when I saw this, this being the same movie that began with police asking a teenager what caused him to brutally murder a litter of puppies. Through this self-awareness it creates a cynical perspective. Teens doing lethal stunts to prove masculinity. Why? “Because you gotta do something,” says one characters shortly before he dies. This ties right in with a narration given to the characters at the end of a planetarium scene. In the eyes of Rebel Without A Cause, life is pointless.
The movie is not amoral though. You can easily sympathize with these characters. Despite the campy nature of the film, a sense of attachment does grow in the viewer. Through Plato’s child-like nature the film also explores familial themes. Despite their many flaws most of the characters never convince you that they’re completely hopeless. Some find their way, some don’t.
This is a classic piece of American cinema. The screenplay was expanded based on Nicholas Ray’s own story. In its complete lack of realism and it begging for analysis on its thematic structure and commentary, Rebel Without a Cause presents a world that exists solely to tell its story.