TEENAGE TERROR TORN FROM TODAY’S HEADLINES.
Every time I watch this movie it’s impossible not to think about the heartbreaking tragedies that ended the lives of its three young stars. This was James Dean’s third and last movie, released a month after he was killed in a car crash. In 1976, Sal Mineo was murdered in West Hollywood, and five years later Natalie Wood drowned in what was either an accident or foul play. Here, they are forever enshrined, young and beautiful.
One night in a Los Angeles police station, the lives of three troubled teenagers intersect. Jim Stark (Dean), Judy (Wood) and “Plato” (Mineo) all have different issues to deal with. Jim, who’s drunk, is picked up by his parents but once again he gets to see his weak father being humiliated by his domineering mother. Judy desperately begs the police officers to ask her father to come and get her, and starts crying when they tell her they reached her mother instead. “Plato” does get affectionate attention from an adult, but that’s the family’s housekeeper who looks after him while his mom is out traveling; his dad is long gone.
Later, at school, “Plato” spends more time with Jim and clearly looks up to him; Jim is interested in Judy but she’s part of a gang of bullies and he is immediately targeted by their leader, Buzz (Corey Allen). After an interrupted knife fight outside the Griffith Observatory, both boys agree to face each other in a chicken race…
Taking its young characters seriously
The title is borrowed from a 1944 psychiatry book about psychopaths, but Rebel Without a Cause is simply about teenagers, and the story came at a time when they began to influence culture in a much greater way. Dean himself, in his jeans, white T-shirt and red jacket became the very symbol of the liberated 1950s teenager, the boy or girl who would question the rules and phony etiquette of society.
Modern audiences will recognize that time has indeed passed regarding certain aspects of the film. Our view of gender roles have evolved a lot, which is painfully obvious in the problems between Jim and his parents. He goes ballistics over seeing his dad wear an apron, interpreting it as weakness; needless to say, only morons would find a problem with that today. But the film takes its young characters and their issues seriously and treats them with love, not contempt, which is particularly obvious in a touching scene where Jim, Judy and “Plato” play house in a deserted building. It’s also quite daring for its time. Rebel Without a Cause has sometimes been called the first movie to feature a gay teen. This is not clearly expressed, but the signs are obvious, as “Plato” keeps giving Jim the same looks as Judy does, and has a pinup picture of Alan Ladd in his school locker.
The homosexuality is depicted in a discreet, moving way, and becomes another facet of all of these character’s search for love, understanding and belonging. It may involve teenagers, but it isn’t trivial. This is a story of life and death, its impact strengthened by Leonard Rosenman’s dark, dramatic score.
The film has also become director Nicholas Ray’s most celebrated, an influence on the French New Wave, partly because of its social message, partly because of the director’s filmmaking skills. Shot in striking colors and exceptionally well choreographed in many scenes, including an argument between Jim and his parents at home and the final scenes at the observatory, the movie is a classic example of Ray’s attempt to combine realism in writing with a stylish look.
Rebel Without a Cause 1955-U.S. 111 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by David Weisbart. Directed by Nicholas Ray. Screenplay: Stewart Stern. Cinematography: Ernest Haller. Music: Leonard Rosenman. Cast: James Dean (Jim Stark), Natalie Wood (Judy), Sal Mineo (John “Plato” Crawford), Jim Backus, Ann Doran, William Hopper… Dennis Hopper.
Trivia: Paul Newman and Marlon Brando were allegedly considered for parts.
Last word: “I asked Nick if he would facilitate my going to Juvenile Hall, and he did. Nick loved the way that the reception part of the juvenile office was laid out—with the booths and glass windows—so you could see the other people through the windows, and he wanted me to exploit that setting to develop the relationships of the characters. So I went down to juvenile hall, and the first kid I interviewed was a famous actor’s son, who’d just gotten out of jail. He’d been in a lot of trouble, and he’d had a really heartbreaking experience with his father when he left the facility. I learned a great deal talking with him. So, every night, from around five o’clock into the early morning, I was at Juvenile Hall, and they gave me a clipboard, and I talked to an awful lot of troubled young kids. After about three days, I was even given access to some selected files: the psychiatric testing, the inkblots, and all the stuff they did in processing those kids.” (Stern, Michigan Quarterly Review)