Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
“The bad boy from a good family.”
Director: Nicholas Ray
Cast: James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo
Synopsis: A rebellious young man with a troubled past comes to a new town, finding friends and enemies.
Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause was arguably the movie that introduced the concept of the teenager as an angst-ridden individual struggling to find and express his or her identity, and although he was too old to play a 17-year-old, James Dean (then 24), a fidgety actor with pretty looks, was the perfect instrument through which that angst could be voiced. His tortured and tortuous delivery suggests depths of insight and contemplation that are probably beyond that of your average teenager, no matter how intelligent, but it’s undeniably one that sticks in the memory. He’s not the only teen in the movie struggling with his self (“Where do you live?” he asks 16-year-old Natalie Wood. “Who lives?” she replies), but he’s the only one that convinces.
Jim Stark (James Dean) is a kid who struggles to fit in, which is hardly surprising when you consider his home life. His mother’s a nagging shrew, and his father’s a pinafore-wearing doormat, leaving young Jim struggling to find an adult figure with whom he can identify or look up to. In yet another new town he takes a shine to Judy (Natalie Wood – Miracle on 34th Street), whose own father is struggling with her sudden blooming into womanhood, but she runs with a gang which takes an instant dislike to Jim. Buzz Gunderson (Corey Allen – The Bridges at Toko-Ri), the leader of this gang, challenges Jim to a chicken run – a game of dare in which they race towards a cliff edge in stolen cars, with the first to jump from their car considered the chicken – which ends in tragedy and sets in motion a sequence of events which will result in a premature death.
Rebel Without a Cause is at its strongest when articulating the tortures of teenage angst, but stumbles when called upon to show the same kids enjoying themselves. When Jim and Judy, together with a bullied kid called Plato (Sal Mineo) whose worship of Jim is tinged with homosexual desire (just check out his bedroom), find brief refuge in a deserted mansion their interplay feels forced and unconvincing, but when they’re clashing with authority figures, or one another, the dialogue crackles and sparks. Dean’s mannered performance – which was so out of place in Giant – works perfectly here, and it’s not difficult to see why he quickly amassed a huge following, the ranks of which were swelled by his premature demise.
It’s definitely a film of its era, and much of the dialogue feels dated when seen more than half-a-century later, but the theme is timeless and the strength of Dean’s performance means Rebel Without a Cause is always worth a watch.
(Reviewed 14th November 2014)