Rebel without a Cause is one of those films, like The Seven Year Itch, which acquired mythic status because it offered the spectacle of a tragically short-lived star persona stripped to its essentials. The white t-shirt and red jacket that James Dean puts on to take part in the famous chicken run sequence midway through the movie would, like the white, pleated, halter-top dress Marilyn Monroe wears at a similar point in Itch, adorn thousands of common room and locker room walls in postcard or poster form for decades to come, the movies’ titles translated into dozens of different languages. While Marilyn was encouraged to play ‘herself’, conforming to a studio image that had already been established by earlier pictures, Jimmy Dean was discovering who ‘he’ was, with the help of Nicholas Ray’s stewardship (and the director made himself far more available for his mixed-up charge than Billy Wilder had for his; while the latter got to renew the frustration of his experience – on Some Like it Hot – Dean did not live long enough to afford Ray that opportunity. After one more movie (Giant) he was already dead.) All of which is to say that Rebel without a Cause may well now promise a whole lot more than it delivers.
Rebel was of course Warner Brothers’ contribution to the youth ‘problem picture’ that began with The Wild One (1954) and continued with The Blackboard Jungle (also 1955) and many others. These were Hollywood’s response to a growing disaffection among America’s post-war generation, which went hand in hand with an increased affluence and challenge of authority. They were also Hollywood’s at times kak-handed attempt to cash in on what teenagers wanted to see at the movies: not Spencer Tracy comedies, not Gregory Peck Westerns, but themselves. So what did they do? They cast over-age actors as adolescents and had contract writers pen the kind of dialogue they imagined sounded hip.
Rebel is in some ways typical of this practice, in others not. For one, the plot resembles very much that of a routine Western: a quiet, withdrawn type arrives new in town, gets picked on by the tough hotheads at the local saloon (high school), proves his manhood in a duel to the death, gains the love of the girl but incurs the undying enmity of his former antagonist’s acolytes, for which innocence suffers before everyone regains their senses. But then Hollywood ever did deal in but a limited number of stories!
The nature of the rebellion, however, is far more of a moot point in this film; as the title suggests, these kids do not really have much to be unhappy about on the face of it, even if the screenwriters do their utmost to contrive otherwise. By contrast, in The Wild One the bar owner asks the leader of the bikers who have ridden into his town like Eli Wallach in The Magnificent Seven, ‘Just what are you rebelling against?’ To which Brando retorts: ‘Whaddya gat?’ In other words, the fun is in the rebellion itself – who needs a cause? But in our film Jim Stark does have a weakling of a father and a harpy of a mother; Judy does have a penis-envy complex going with her pa; and Plato desperately needs a family as opposed to an absentee father and a mother who shoots off to Chicago on his birthday. (To make assurance doubly sure, they also have him run away from home as a child and shoot puppies with a handgun.) Materially, of course, they have it all: they drive to school in their own cars, can stay out all hours, and live in handsomely appointed houses, in Plato’s case with a black Mamma to look after him. Yep, these are ever so mixed-up kids.
Authority, meanwhile, is a gaping void: with ineffectual and disrespected parents and teachers, and juvenile crime officers who say, ‘Drop in for a chat next time you feel like nutting someone’, they are free to have knife fights and race each other off cliff tops with scant interference from the local police. What’s more, the reasons behind their all ending up together at the police station in the film’s symbolic opening scene are somewhat under-explored; rare, indeed, for a movie to strain credibility from the outset, instead preferring to wait for the resolution! Judy’s father’s rejection of her welcome kiss at the dinner table, coming as it does after her lament in the aforementioned scene that he accuses her of dressing like a tramp, seems a little too forced in its censoriousness; that Jim’s father should be seen wearing the kitchen apron by his embarrassed son is one thing, but that it should be quite so effeminate, and that he should still be wearing it later on that evening, is over-egging the mise-en-scène somewhat. Plato’s house is just a bit too plush, surely, and what is a silver .45 doing under his mother’s pillow?
In spite of these shortcomings in the writing and conception, Rebel without a Cause remains full of interest, principally, for Dean’s performance. Whatever Ray had to go through to coax it out of him, there is a naturalness and command in his delivery of the lines – except when the dialogue leaves him with no chance – and in what he does with his eyes, which, let’s face it, are what cinema is all about. Natalie Wood contributes strong support as Judy, her sincerity of emotion never in doubt, in spite of having to switch from tough guy’s floozy to disciple of genuine Jim at the drop of a hat. And Ray provides some memorable flourishes of his own, such as the tilting of the Cinemascope frame at moments of drama, or the track-in on Natalie Wood as the competing cars hurtle towards her on either side.
In the end, though, the film is flawed as sociological drama, while it is only partially satisfying as full-blooded melodrama, and if it were not for Dean’s presence in it, it would doubtless have gone the way of The Blackboard Jungle, as a dated example of a Hollywood teen flick, superseded by such as Ordinary People or The Breakfast Club. But as things are, James Dean will ensure its immortality, and Nicholas Ray gives it a sense of style and stature. And the Warnercolor still looks just great.