Jim: You live here don’t you?
Judy: Who lives?
We remember Rebel Without a Cause now because of James Dean. His Jim Stark has become synonymous with 50s cinema perhaps more than any other character. We remember the white t-shirt and red jacket he wore as the essence of 50s cool. Even if you haven’t seen the film, you must’ve seen Dean in that image, one that has stayed in the public consciousness since the film premiered mere months after his premature death. We remember the image, but do we remember the film? If not then we should, today Rebel Without a Cause still justifies its existence by being just as relevant and powerful as it was back in 1955. It’s a film that broke through the picture perfect Norman Rockwell aesthetic and showed its dangerous side. It wasn’t afraid to expose the emptiness of middle class Americans who could no longer see the point of existence, and who struggled with their own ennui as they race towards that abyss that was waiting for them.
The film plays out like an opera, something that is big with emotion, and life. It fits in nicely with the 50s melodrama which was favorable at the time. It begins with a sort of prologue at a police station where Dean’s Jim is picked up for underage drinking. At the same time, we meet the other teenagers who will play a prominent role; they are Judy (Natalie Wood) who is brought in for breaking curfew, and Plato (Sal Mineo) who is caught killing a litter of puppies. Jim, Judy, and Plato don’t formally meet at the police station, but seeing them fill the same scene connects them like kindred spirits, each one struggling with their own inner demons trying to comprehend their confusing adolescent spiral.
We see right away what ails Jim, his father Mr. Stark (Jim Backus) is a weak minded man in a domineering marriage with Jim’s mother (Ann Doran). It’s easy to assume the parent characters would be the cliched, one-note, and straight-laced couple who don’t abide with Jim’s actions, but that’s not necessarily the case. Director Nicholas Ray along with screenwriter Stewart Stern create more nuance to their relationship. They are really a couple who are confused with Jim’s behaviour, it’s not that they don’t care, they just don’t have the insight into themselves to know what he really needs. They are too narrow minded to see Jim acting out is really a cry for help.
There is a similar parental disconnect for both Judy and Plato as well. With Judy, she has a rather obsessive relationship with her father, one that sees her starving for his attention. This attitude isn’t explained outright, but the film does leave enough clues to suggest Judy’s father may have abused her or maybe even molested her, in any case, his feelings towards her veer on the unnatural, which he might even be ashamed of. There is a violent act at the dinner table where Judy tries to sit on her father’s lap and kisses him, after which he shockingly slaps her. It’s a bizarre scene with much psychological subtext about what exactly is going on. Of course it being the 1950s, nothing could be said outright, but in some ways it doesn’t need to be spelled out for us.
For Plato, he has been abandoned by his parents outright, and the only presence they have in his life is when they send him a cheque for him to live off of. Plato is surely the most isolated and lonely in the film, probably filled with deep emotional scars. We also see in his friendship with Jim that Plato may be harbouring homosexual tendencies. Plato has been described as a gay character before, and considering the 50s restraint on films of that time, it’s rather surprising that his true nature is made so explicit.
This psychological turmoil in the film creates an intriguing study about existential angst among teenagers, one that gets darker as it moves along. Truly, we have to ask as Jim, Judy, and Plato do, what is the point? Director Ray, reveals this main crisis concerning the film in one of its main set pieces inside a planetarium. There we see school kids watching a star show on “The End of Man” where the lecturer describes “Through the infinite reaches of space, the problems of man seem trivial and naive indeed, and man existing alone seems himself an episode of little consequence.” The science show ends with the world ending, which is definitely a chaotic message for any teenager to hear and see.
This message of a meaningless existence is probably best personified in the film’s most famous set piece, the chickie run. Here we see Jim, in a drag race with local gang leader Buzz (Corey Allen), where they drive down a strip leading to the edge of a cliff, the first one to jump out of the car is the chicken. Before the race, there is a quiet moment between Jim and Buzz, where they are both looking down at the edge of the cliff. Ray shoots it like a dark void of nothingness going with the film’s theme, it’s the personification of living life literally on the edge. This scene also gives a more earie feel to it considering how Dean himself would die only months later, in a scenario that almost mirrors the one in the film.
The chickie run leads to Buzz’s accidental death, and Jim, Judy, and Plato are now on the run from the police as well as their parents. They hide out in an abandoned mansion and for a time find solace in their own surrogate family they make for each other. Jim and Judy create a mother/father dynamic, while Plato fills the role of the child. This tender time doesn’t last forever and sets us up for the final tragic act which brings us back to the planetarium, the same place they were told about the end of the world.
Rebel Without a Cause is fascinating because it’s a film that feels the frustration of its characters. It’s trying to depict the intangible feelings they are trying to express. What does it all mean? What is the point? These are all questions we must face, but it’s frightening to be so young and realize it for the first time.
There is a sense of danger in each performance which gives the film even more of an edge. As Judy, Natalie Wood was the most traditionally trained of the actors, growing up in front of the camera. Before this, her best known role was the little girl in Miracle on 34th Street, but she fought to be in this films so she could shed her child star image. Wood makes Judy into a truly sympathetic girl who feels she has to be rebellious in order to act out, but it’s just to cover up a sense of insecurity of not feeling loved. We see her as lost and screaming out for some sort of connection.
Sal Mineo is heart breaking as Plato, the younger looking kid riding his scooter to school, and mostly keeping to himself. Mineo lets us into Plato’s simple, but sometimes warped mind, a child who doesn’t know how to grow up, mostly because no one is around to show him. Seeing Plato and Jim together is the only time he seems happy and utterly content, though he’s deathly afraid of losing it all.
Despite the great work by both Wood and Mineo, make no mistake, this is Dean’s show all the way. Much has been made of Dean’s performance, and some have called it old fashioned and mannered. While it’s true, Dean acted on a different wavelength than his contemporary Marlon Brando who he was most compared to, but that works to his benefit, he was far more expressionistic. Dean plays Jim like a wounded animal, shrugging his shoulders, and slumping over in despair and sometimes mumbling his words. There doesn’t seem to be method in Dean’s madness, though he was one of the preeminent members to come out of the Actor’s Studio in New York. Despite that, it seems like his performance is coming from something more primal and personal. No one really acted like Dean did, including Brando, to me his body movement and facial expressions almost had more in common with a silent movie actor, rather than the definition of the method style. It’s a phenomenal, unique performances and is part of the why this film is a masterpiece.
It’s important to note the time in which Rebel Without a Cause was made, which was right smack dab in the middle of the cold war. We remember the 50s as an iddylic fantasy with suburban households, and the nuclear family, but there was another term at the time with the word “nuclear” in it, and it was much more deadly. Here were these children, living their lives in a setting that almost seemed make-believe where the world itself was on the edge of annhilation. And what’s it all for? The clue is in the title itself, what was the cause? There wasn’t any, the teenagers were grappling with their own nihilsm, grasping for something to believe in. They were being torn apart in every direction, trying to find their identity, their purpose, and sometimes it felt like a futile effort. What’s it all for? What’s waiting for them? It’s hard not to look away from that abyss, the one that Jim and Buzz looked down from the cliff, in the end it’s what we are all driving towards.