On Tuesday I went into New York City to see Rebel Without a Cause, part of the Film Forum’s retrospective on James Dean celebrating the 60th anniversary of Giant. They screened East of Eden and Giant as well, and boy, would I have loved to see Dean act in all three films on the big screen, but I could only fit in one show. Still, it was a magical experience watching him in all his glory in his most famous role as Jim Stark, possibly the most thoughtful rebel ever depicted in a film. Upon rewatching Nicholas Ray’s visually stunning picture, I was still irritated by some of its weaker plot points, but I saw the deeper side to the story that I’d overlooked the first time around.
The film revolves around Jim Stark (Dean), a lost teenager who must try to fit in as the new kid in town. All Jim really wants is to have a chance to make friends and feel accepted, but his parents make that impossible by packing up and moving every time he gets into the littlest of trouble. He also feels controlled by his mother and wishes his father would be more of a man and stand up to his mother’s erratic behavior. In the first few scenes of the film, Jim meets another misfit, Plato (Sal Mineo), a boy who has been essentially abandoned by both his parents, and Judy (Natalie Wood), who cries about her father no longer loving her as he did when she was a child. After a series of fights with their parents and run-ins with bullies, the three find themselves together and realize just how much they have in common. The cast also includes Jim Backus playing Jim’s hilariously clueless father, Corey Allen as the big, dumb bully Buzz, and Dennis Hopper as one of Buzz’s henchmen.
Nicholas Ray excellently captures the struggles of life as a teenager in this landmark film, one of the first in Hollywood to focus on middle-class suburban kids. I was most impressed by how cleverly written the film is, especially the dialogue. It feels true to how actual high schoolers would speak and isn’t loaded with forced jokes and one-liners that are found in similar, more modern films. The film reveals its depth with the conversations between characters, most notably in the opening scenes between Dean and the police officer. The acting is also superb, and Dean, Wood, and Mineo have incredible chemistry; their interactions are so genuine and portray the awkwardness that naturally occurs between young people (which can likely be attributed to Nicholas Ray allegedly allowing James Dean to improvise many scenes, with the rest of the actors then following Dean’s direction). The complex relationship Plato develops with Jim is fascinating, as Plato simultaneously loves him paternally, fraternally, and romantically, and the homosexual undertones of their interactions were certainly groundbreaking for the time. Jim plays the part of the teenage misfit beautifully, portraying a deeper and more vulnerable side that is rarely seen in comparable characters from other films.
The film is deliciously shot in Cinemascope, and the bright, beautiful colors that pop off the screen are such a sight to behold on the big screen. The film drifts from the hazy, artificially lit rooms of the police station to a bright blue sky on the first day of school and a high school crowd dressed in bold patterns to characters standing in the shadows of darkened rooms, offering us visuals that look like something straight out of Edward Hopper’s oil paintings. The angles of the camera are stunning as well: during the fight at the observatory, we see Buzz’s switchblade glisten as the sun catches it in the forefront, looming over Dean’s short stature in the background; in another scene, the camera rolls over 180 degrees to show Jim’s mother trot down the stairs as he rights himself on the couch after a tumultuous night out.
I found Judy’s backstory to be weakly and creepily written: a father stops loving his daughter simply because she’s growing up? The inference I draw from that is that her father must view her as a sex object because she’s a woman now and no longer a child, and to stop loving her would be to avoid any conflict that could arise. It’s understandably disturbing and frustrating for her, and she reconciles it through her romance with Jim, but I felt there could have been more to her personal conflict to make her a deeper character as the other two protagonists are. There are also a lot of corny bits in here that are clearly a product of the time which make the 50s seem super corny, and they make the film feel dated in parts. The fights between Jim and his parents were also a bit ridiculous, laughable, and over the top, and I felt the film could have been shortened by a good twenty minutes – the last scene feels rather drawn out (which I assume was an attempt at suspense, but a bad one at that).
Even so, at the time of its release Ray’s film offered a groundbreaking view of the personal hell each teenager eventually goes through. Though the film has its weak and melodramatic spots, overall it is a strong, well-written and well-acted picture that offers us some universal and ever-relevant messages: all anyone and everyone wants is to be loved and to find their place in the world.
Rating: ★★★☆☆ 1/2