Rebel without a Cause (1955)

Director: Nicholas Ray

Producer: David Weisbart (Warner Bros.)

Writers: Nicholas Ray (story), Irving Shulman (adaptation), Stewart Stern (screenplay)

Photography: Ernest Haller

Music: Leonard Rosenman

Cast: James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Jim Backus, Ann Doran, Corey Allen, William Hopper, Rochelle Hudson, Dennis Hopper, Edward Platt, Steffi Sidney, Marietta Canty, Virginia Brissac, Beverly Long

“Dream as if you’ll live forever. Live as if you’ll die today.” Survey any college dorm and you’ll find those words written on a poster, superimposed over an image of James Dean, his red coat with popped collar, white t-shirt underneath, greased-up hair, cigarette in hand. The irony of this, of course, is that most of these people have probably never seen a James Dean movie. So how does such pop culture thrive?

Youth continue to follow Dean for what he stood for, this definition of teen angst, confusion and unbottled rebellion. He represented a new type of male, a guy who could pull off toughness with quirky, feminine mannerisms, who could be innately sexy but entirely mysterious. A man who just by gazing into his sad eyes, spoke volumes about a disenchanted youth. And yes, a man who would become a martyr for all this, dying in that tragic road accident at age 24, just five months after the release of his debut film. For that, Elia Kazan’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1955), Dean earned the first posthumous Oscar nomination in Academy Awards history. And the first Dean film to be released after his death, a month after his death actually, was Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause, the film that would become the most synonymous with Dean himself for its classic images — Dean writhing in anguish at a police station desk; making mischievous “moo” sounds during a class field trip; exploding in anger at his parents: “You’re tearin’ me apart!”; softly asking Natalie Wood if she wants to “explore the other rooms” and crying “no bullets” at the tragic conclusion.

Jim Stark (Dean) is a troubled teen who’s been uprooted so many times he doesn’t know where, or who, to call home. His parents, a weak, placating father (Jim Backus, Gilligan’s Island) and cranky, domineering mother (Ann Doran), do more to confuse him than to raise him. As the new arrival at a Los Angeles high school, Jim finds only one friend, an orphan with abandonment issues named Plato (Sal Mineo). He also finds interest in neighborhood cutie, Judy (Wood), but is kept at a distance from her by the bunch of convertible-riding “kids” (including a young Dennis Hopper) whom Judy runs with, namely the leader of the pack, Buzz Gunderson (future TV director Corey Allen). In order to prove that he can fit in, Jim accepts Buzz’s challenge to a dangerous teen stunt called a “chickie run,” where two guys race old hot rods to the edge of a cliff and the first to dive out is “chicken.”

When disaster strikes, Jim’s parents threaten to move again, and in the chaos, he becomes romantically involved with Judy, both discovering they have a lot in common, both coming from bickering homes. Together, they join Plato in forming a fictiious family and escape to a dream-like getaway in an abandoned, derelict mansion in the Hollywood hills — Neverland, as screenwriter Stewart Stern called it (D). Movie buffs should instantly recognize the mansion as Norma Desmond’s home in Sunset Blvd. (1950). The trio’s frollick through the mansion’s poolyard, Willaim Holden’s final resting place in Sunset Blvd., is an ominous indication as to the tragedy that will materialize by the film’s conclusion.

Borrowing its title from psychiatrist Robert Lindner’s 1944 book Rebel Without A Cause: The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath, Ray’s film follows nothing else from the book. In fact, as much as early promotions plugged the “without a cause” theme — the tagline: “And they both came from good families!” — Dean’s teen does have a cause for rebellion — his parents’ own ineptitude in parenting. As in The Graduate (1967), the parents are all phonies. It’s no wonder Ray that in casting the father, Ray cast Backus, the man who played Mr. Magoo (C). At one point at the mansion, when Plato asks Jim about children, you’ll hear Dean invoke Magoo, mocking Backus’ voice, and thus his father’s voice (B). Jim’s main beef with his old man is how submissive he is to the mother, to the point of even wearing an apron. Not that Jim is anti-feminist; he’s just yearning for an equal partnership in his parents. As Jim tells a police officer, “She eats him alive, and he takes it … If he had the guts to knock Mom cold once, then maybe she’d be happy.” This notion alligns entirely with the era’s thinking of “Momism,” a term coined by Philip Wylie’s 1943 book A Generation of Vipers, arguing that rising female dominance was the cause of everything wrong in America (B).

But the roots of Jim’s problems stretch beyond this. Also driving his rebellion is his parents’ inability to listen to his concerns and their desire to run away from moral questions rather than face them. After the chickie run, his mom declares, “We’re moving,” at which point Jim unleashes his frustration: “You’re not tearing me loose again! You are not going to use me as an excuse again! Everytime you can’t face yourself, you blame it on me! You say it’s because of me, you say it’s because of the neighborhood. You use every other phony excuse! Mom, just once I wanna do something right. And I don’t want you to run away from me again.”

Dean’s diagnosis speaks volumes to society’s overall attitude toward problems (i.e. crime), even to this day. Rather than look at the larger societal issues that shape those problems, people want to say it’s the fault of a few individuals in a bad neighborhood, and if we just move far enough away from it, we’ll be okay. Rebel says not so fast, bringing the blame right back to the family and arguing that teenage deliquency starts with poor parenting, a hostile home environment and a clash of values. Jim, and the film itself, seem to have this subconscious realization, and, unable to fully articulate it, feel that the only answer is to rebel somehow, someway.

Along with Brando’s motorcyclist in The Wild One (1953), Dean’s role in Rebel broke new barriers, or build new bridges, between heroism and what was once considered menace (it’s fitting that Brando’s “Hey Stella!” is quoted by one of Judy’s hoods). And while Brando briefly preceeded Dean, Rebel may very well be the first film to expose the restlessness between the babyboomers and their parents, to capture that feeling teenage angst that began in post-WWII homes and would explode in the coming ’60s. Consequently, Ray served as a rare Studio System catalyst for the Hollywood Renaissance, where a new generation of revolutionary filmmakers would further explore themes Ray put forth here. Take for instance the entire planetarium theme, put into words by the planetarium lecturer:

“In all the immensity of our universe and the galaxies beyond, the earth will not be missed. 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 consiquence.” With this Ray spells out a huge idea that countless filmmakers have wrestled with in his wake, namely Woody Allen — that man’s everyday existence is pointless in the vast scheme of things. Is this an explanation for teenage rebellion, that the world could end at any minute, so why not live for the moment? If so, when things come full circle outside the planetarium at the end of the film, the tragedy of this rebellious cause feels like poetry.

For such impact, Ray is well respected in critics’ circles, though he is still somewhat underrated. Most casual viewers would likely say, who’s that guy with the eyepatch? The answer should unequivocably be: that’s Nicholas Ray, master of They Live By Night (1948), starring Cathy O’Donnell and Farley Granger, In a Lonely Place (1950), starring Bogart and Gloria Grahame, Johnny Guitar (1954), starring Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden, and, of course, Rebel, where Ray had found his best match in Dean. Rebel‘s title is apprapoe for Ray’s own work behind the camera. As his daughter told Turner Classic Movies, Ray’s career journey through his pictures was one of “temper, violence, feeling the outsider, wanting to believe that love could save him and then realize that it couldn’t.” (A) 

In Rebel Without a Cause, his touches are evident — his camera passing Mineo to follow Dean in the police station and then picking up Wood when Dean exits; the composition of all three waiting in the station, Dean on a chair to the right of the frame, Mineo sitting on a bench in the middle, Wood visible through a window to the left; shooting through a peephole years before Hitchcock and Polanski; the entire cutting of the chickie run, the high-angle of the headlights flashing on, the close-ups of the cars racing by, and Dean’s dive out the door playing in fast motion; the pacing of the final mansion sequence and the shadows dancing across Dean’s face as he talks to Plato in the planetarium.

Most impressive is the scene where Dean comes home after the chicken run. He lays upsidedown on the couch, and Ray shows us a POV of his upsidedown camera. As he turns right-side-up again, the POV spins as well, much like Hitchcock did for Ingrid Bergman in Notorious (1946). Later in this scene, Ray allows the camera to tilt slightly diagonal during his major confrontation with his parents, visually expressing the chaos of the moment. Rather than cut to a static dutch angle, Ray allows the camera to tilt mid-take, then settle into dutch angel position. Also talk about blocking in this scene, namely the positioning of the dominant figures in the frame, the controlling mother placed the highest in the shot standing on the stairs to left, Dean standing up in the middle and his father, cowering down to the right as Dean pleads, “Dad, stand up for me.” Stand up for me. The words are key, as you’ll note later, at the film’s conclusion when his father seems to have learned his lesson, that he says, “Jim, stand up. I’ll stand up with you.”

As seen here with the “stand up” symbolism, it is often hard to seperate Ray’s direction from Stern’s writing. You can see reflected in the movie both Ray’s own misgivings about himself as a father and Stern’s own bad memories as a son. (D) Both also seem to share the same vision for Rebel to unfold as a classic tragedy, assisted by Ray’s Warnercolor tones and Leonard Rosenman’s haunting, melodramatic score. It is certainly no coincidence that the true tragic character be named Plato and that the finale unfold on the steps of the Griffith Observatory, which was chosen for its resemblence to a Greek ampitheater, where the classic tragedies often unfolded right on the temple steps (Coppola tried to recapture this at the close of Godfather III). (D)

Of course, such a stylized, operatic approach can present an accessibility problem, with first-time viewers unable to both grasp the full scope of the themes or understand the motives of these strangely behaving characters, particularly of Plato, but true of all the teens in the picture (as one guy says of Jim: “He’s real abstract. He’s different”). Perhaps this is because Stern’s script, and thus Ray’s interpretation of it, also does not seem able to put a figer on their motives. After all, teenage angst is very ambiguous subject matter, super hard to explain, a fact that is has never been better demonstrated than before the “chickie run” as Dean and his rival share a moment: “You know something? I like you.” “Then why do we do this?” “You gotta do somethin’.”

Still, one has to wonder if such ambiguity, such eccentricity, such weirdness, is the reason Rebel Without a Cause has fallen from the AFI’s Top 100, especially after a powerful #59 spot on the original 1997 list. Perhaps the film has dated that much, as the idea of teenage angst has taken on an entirely new meaning today than it did in 1955. Or, another argument could be that Dean’s reach has started to fade, his two once AFI-recognized films (Rebel and Giant) disappearing like those of Montgomery Clift, who also lost his two entries, A Place in the Sun and From Here to Eternity. Is it really possible that James Dean will be lost on future generations?

The answer is no. At least, not entirely. While his immediate impact has given way to legend, so much that modern audiences may never quite grasp just what Dean meant to his era, his mark will linger long after that of Clift. For proof, just look around every corner of pop culture. Rebel‘s opening of Dean lying drunk on a city street must have been in mind when Stuart Rosenberg shot the opening of Cool Hand Luke (1967). The staging of the knife fight, with Wood in background, was obviously influential on the staging of West Side Story (1961). The breakthrough of Martin Sheen in Terence Malick’s Badlands (1973) is a clear homage to Dean. And Rebel‘s famous “Don’t call me chicken” was used often by Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future (1985). Beyond cinematic homages, the music industry has also paid great tribute. Kid Rock named his breakthrough album “Devil Without a Cause.” Bands ranging from The Eagles to The Goo Goo Dolls have titled songs after him. Hits like Don McLean’s “American Pie,” John Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane” and Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” all mention him. And country band Shenandoah sang the ultimate tribute: “Natalie Wood gave her heart to James Dean, high school rebel and a teenage queen. Standing together in an angry world, one both fighting for one girl. I wanna be loved like that!”

Indeed the romance between the two confused, world-weary lovers is one for the ages, that shot of her chin resting on his shoulder seeming frozen in time. When Wood also died an untimely death, drowning off Catalina Island while shooting Douglas Trumbull’s Brainstorm (1983), Rebel took on a whole new feeling of mythisism. Two actors who left us too early, and one who left us way too early. In this light, the film’s conclusion of Dean’s red jacket being zipped up is eerily prophetic. How good could James Dean have been? Perhaps we were never meant to know. Perhaps the guessing is what makes him so great. Perhaps there was some divine plan that Dean would be sent to us, to tease us with his cool, his charm, his laugh, only to be snatched away and make us realize what we once had. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot indeed. And scattered all around that parking lot are continued references to paradise.


CITE A: TCM documentary: “Edge of Outside”
CITE C: David Thomson, New Biographical Dictionary of Film
CITE D: DVD documentary Rebel Without a Cause: Defiant Innocents

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