Rebel Without a Cause was among the first films I watched when I was in full discovery of classic films. This first viewing seems forever ago but I remember it as if it was yesterday. I rent the DVD at a video store that unfortunately doesn’t exist anymore. They had a lot of choices, so that’s why I liked this place. I watched the movie in the living room which, at the time, was where my sister’s bedroom is now! I think I was 15 when I first saw this film. So, it was 8 years ago! Of course, any people discovering classic films come across James Dean one day or another. But why starting with Rebel Without a Cause? Well, this is the one that will most likely appeal to a teenager. Right? I loved the film. And now I’ve seen it countless times. But now, as a young adult, I see things that my teenage spirit could not detect at the time. Because Rebel Without a Cause is more than just a movie about rebels, more than a teen movie. It is probably one of the most impactful movies that Nicholas Ray has made.
The 50s were the decade belonging to teenagers. That’s when they’re tendencies were expended and when the concept itself of adolescence became a thing, with the qualities and flaws that come with it. They had their own fashion, their own tastes, their own ideals. That’s why the 50s were marked by movies such as Blackboard Jungle, The Wild One, A Summer Place, Gidget, King Creole and, of course, Rebel Without a Cause.
Why did I take so long to talk about this film on my blog? Well, no reason really. There are just so many great movies to review. But, I thought Samantha’s Natalie Wood Blogathon that she is hosting on her blog Musings of A Classic Film Addict would be the perfect occasion to discuss it. Because yes, Natalie Wood was another big star who was in this movie.
Rebel Without a Cause was released in 1955. The story starts in a police station in Los Angeles. Jim Stark (James Dean) has been arrested for drunkenness (he is underage). Two other teens are seen: Judy (Natalie Wood) who ran away from home due to her difficult relationship with her father, and John Crawford (Sal Mineo), said Plato, for shooting puppies. Jim’s parents soon arrive accompanied by grandmother (Virginia Brissac). We then understand that Jim has difficulty tolerating them: his mother (Ann Doran) is too controlling and his father (Jim Backus) is not strong enough. After a good discussion with Inspector Ray Fremick (Edward Platt), Jim returns home with his parents and grandmother.
We have to know that the family has just arrived in Los Angeles and this is not the first time Jim’s getting into troubles (and not the last either). Each time something goes wrong, the family moves to another city in hope that Jim will make new friends. This might not be the best solution. On his first day of school, Jim is optimistic. Unfortunately, things won’t turn as expected and the whole day will pretty much be a mess. On his way to Dawson High, Jim sees Judy and tries to talk to her, but she prefers hanging with “the kids” and her boyfriend Buzz (Corey Allen), the leader of the gang. Arrived at school, Jim is noticed by Plato and they eventually become friends. The students are having a class at the Griffith Observatory. Buzz, who obviously likes to cause troubles, provokes Jim in a knives fight. But Jim has to do more if he wants to prove he’s not a “chicken”: Buzz challenges him to a “Chickie run”. The appointment for the dangerous challenge is at 8. The gang and Judy are here to support Buzz, and Plato is here to support Jim. During a discussion with Plato, Judy shows her better side.
This, however, doesn’t turn has expected [SPOILER]: Buzz is killed in the race when his car falls in a cliff. [END OF SPOILER] From now on, things won’t be the same. Judy, who obviously didn’t have any real friends in “the gang” and who is better than they are, befriend Plato and falls in love with Jim. They all have to face the consequences of what happened, the frustration of Buzz’s friends, the police, and their own parents.
Rebel Without a Cause is a film of tragedy. Many connections between it and real life are actually pretty sad. We all know that James Dean died at the terribly young age of 24. This was on September 30, 1955, or a month before the movie was released. Ironically, it’s in a car accident that James Dean lost his life, just like Buzz in the movie (but James’s character was obviously also taking enormous risks).
Actually, the three main actors: James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo formed an unlucky trio as they all died prematurely in tragic circumstances. Natalie Wood drowned at the age of 43. Investigations on this case are still being made. Sal Mineo was murdered in 1976 at the age of 37. John Lennon even offered a reward to the person would find the murderer. His assassin, Lionel Ray Williams, was arrested in 1979.
But this isn’t all: actor Edward Platt put an end to his life at the age of 58 (he suffered from depression), William Hopper (son of columnist Hedda Hopper) who plays Natalie Wood father in the film died of pneumonia at 55; Rochelle Hudson who plays Natalie Wood’s mother also died at 55 from a heart attack, and Nick Adams who plays Chick, one of the members of the gang, died from a drug overdose at 36.
There are, of course, many more interesting things to discuss about Rebel Without a Cause apart from the numerous premature deaths.
One of the main things about Rebel Without a Cause is that it’s not only a movie about teens, it’s a movie that was MADE for them. It shows an empathy towards them and, even if various tragic events happen, these are here to make us realize the injustices they are victims of. The camera shows a lot of empathy towards the characters: how can we not have a tight throat as we watch Natalie Wood in tears saying to the inspector that her father doesn’t love her? How can we not feel sorry for Plato who has been abandoned by both his mother and father? How can we not be disappointed for Jim when he doesn’t succeed so much to make friends. However, as he becomes good friend with Plato and Judy, we understand that quality wins over quantity. It’s better to have a few good friends than many friends who aren’t really friends after all. The trio can really support each other because their parents are obviously not doing their best to give them a decent life. In one night, they mature a lot.
Apart from the difficulty of growing up, teenage delinquency,, and tragic deaths, Rebel Without a Cause deals with a pretty taboo subject (for the time): homosexuality. Today more and more films using this subject are made but, at the time (during the Production Code era), it was a pretty risqué subject. Of course, none of it is mentioned explicitly, but it’s pretty obvious. The idea of it is embodied by Sal Mineo character, Plato. It is not said that he is homosexual or bisexual, but many clues are given to us. In his article “Dangerous Talents” written for Vanity Fair, Sam Kashner writes how Sal Mineo portrayed what could be considered the first gay teenager in a Hollywood movie. According to the author, Nicholas Ray knew about Sal Mineo’s bisexuality and recommend him to use it in some scenes. To help him in this task, James Dean suggested to Sal Mineo to look at him the way Jim looks at Judy. And this worked wonder but remained subtle. Other clues are given to us, such as Alan Ladd photos in Plato’s locker at school and even the name Plato itself (many agree that the Greek philosopher was himself homosexual). I’m not sure if this is true, but according to IMDB, the film was initially supposed to have a kissing scene between James Dean and Sal Mineo but it wasn’t done. Too bad it didn’t happen, because this could have been truly revolutionary. Anyway, we understand it wouldn’t have been approved by the code of censor. Fortunately, times have changed, but kudos to Nicholas Ray and the actors for trying something.
Sal Mineo, an underrated actor, after all, received an Oscar nomination for his poignant performance as John Crawford.
Natalie Wood was also just a teen when she starred in this film, but this one was far from being her first movie as she already had a career in films as a child actress. However, always according to Kashner’s article, Rebel Without a Cause was the occasion for her to break into more mature roles. The young Natalie is at the time lovely and heartbreaking. She starts the film in force with this scene at the police station I previously discussed, and shows many facets as the story goes by. She might be one of the characters who learn the most from what happens during that uncommon day. Her chemistry with James Dean gives place to a beautiful teenage romance. This one is just as good with Sal Mineo and makes us believe in an honest new friendship. Natalie Wood would later be seen in other poignant teenager roles, such as Maria in West Side Story (Robert Wise, 1961), and Wilma in Splendor in the Grass (Elia Kazan, 1961). Just like Sal Mineo, she received an Oscar nomination for her strong and unforgettable performance in this 50s classic.
James Dean had a short but memorable career. Already with his first credited role (East of Eden), he received an Oscar nomination. I used to feel a bit indifferent toward his performance in Rebel Without a Cause, but now I understand how true it is. Was it due to method acting? Well, this certainly helped, but we also feel James Dean had a special maturity in his acting. The method acting probably helped him to remind natural and truly feel the strong emotions. James Dean was a symbol of rebellion and was perfect for the role. The only thing we can reproach is the fact that he was in fact 24 when he played a 16 years old teenager. But hey, everybody looked older than they were in these days anyway.
If I could mention one last actor, it would be Dennis Hopper. Rebel Without a Cause was his first role and, even if he doesn’t talk much, we notice him. I thought he had a pretty interesting presence even at the time when I didn’t know who Dennis Hopper was. And who thought he would later direct THE counter-culture movie by excellence: Easy Rider (1969) and play the creepy Frank Booth in Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986)?
The evolution of Dennis Hopper
Apart from the two nominations for Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress (Sal Mineo/Natalie Wood), Rebel Without a Cause was also nominated for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story (Nicholas Ray). The film indeed presents a perfectly structured story that shows a great evolution of the characters and respects the main thematic. It also contains some memorable lines:
1- Jim Stark: You’re tearing me apart! (certainly the most famous quote of the film)
2- Jim Stark: Nobody talks to children.
Judy: No, they just tell them. ( I think this one reflects perfectly the atmosphere of the film)
3- Jim Stark: If I had one day when I didn’t have to be all confused and I didn’t have to
feel that I was ashamed of everything. If I felt that I belonged someplace. You know?
4- Judy: I love somebody. All the time I’ve been… I’ve been looking for someone to
loveme. And now I love somebody. And it’s so easy. Why is it easy now?
Jim Stark: I don’t know; it is for me, too.
Judy: I love you, Jim. I really mean it.
Jim Stark: Well, I’m glad.
5- Jim Stark: [sitting down, hugging his father’s legs helplessly] Help me!
Frank Stark : Look, Jim. You can depend on me. Trust me. Whatever comes, we’ll, we’ll fix it together. I swear it. Now Jim, stand up. I’ll stand up with you. I’ll try and be as strong as you want me to be. Come on.
6- Plato: Do you think the end of the world will come at nighttime?
Jim Stark: Uh-uh, at dawn.
Plato: Nobody can help me.
And so on. Rebel Without a Cause is a movie that has a lot to say. That’s why you have to watch it as a teenager and then as an adult because you will understand different things.