1955, Ann Doran, drama, Edward Platt, existentialism, film noir, French New Wave, Hamlet, Holden Caulfield, homosexual, Huck Finn, icon, Irving Shulman, James Dean, Jean-Luc Godard, Jim Backus, jim jarmusch, Lightning Over Water, Natalie Wood, Nicholas Ray, phenomenon, pop culture, Rebel Without a Cause, Sal Mineo, Stewart Stern, subtext, Wim Wenders, youth
Written by: Stewart Stern, Irving Shulman
Directed by: Nicholas Ray
Starring: James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Ann Doran, Jim Backus, Edward Platt
Rebel Without a Cause from the great Nicholas Ray is one of those films so ingrained in the cultural dialogue that it feels familiar without needing to be seen; James Dean’s most celebrated performance is iconic nearly to the point of vulgarity. Of course like anything that has been culturally appropriated and paraded about as a symbol, Rebel Without a Cause is so much more subtle and artful than all the poolhall paintings and commemorative plates in the world could ever convey.
We all know the story; Jim (Dean) is new in town, he’s bored, he’s trying to impress Judy (Natalie Wood) and a daredevil race with the other bored punks from school escalates and spells disaster, especially for a kid called Plato (Sal Mineo). Jim is bored, fed up with the wishy-washy authority of his nagging mother (Ann Doran) and wimp of a father (Jim Backus),and while he has no interest in hurting anyone he wants to see a little passion in his life. Rebel Without a Cause is about the torment of being young, in having to choose to follow inane social rituals or else ignore them and be labeled a rebel or trouble child. Jim’s every movement is not so much a cry for help as a scream of frustration; he would rather do anything than do nothing and have to face the boredom. The real brilliance of Rebel Without a Cause is the way that it follows a drinking, smoking, fighting, rule breaking high schooler but rather than be labeled a delinquent, or even a victim of society, he is a a sympathetic character who is just trying to cope with the tedium of the suburban life he never asked for. Dean’s performance is kinetic and smart as he is frequently mocking in his affectations and at other times he seems as though his head is about to explode under the pressure of his needling boredom. A homosexual subtext that lies barely beneath the surface of the relationship between Jim and Plato is remarkable for its day as it is, but its delicate perception is amazing by any standard. The sympathy for the peril of youth in the film is wonderful and I can only imagine how striking it would’ve been in 1955.
Nicholas Ray is a director whose work is enormously beloved and influential within a certain community of cinephiles but whose existence is barely known to the general population. Jim Jarmusch got his start as Ray’s assistant, Ray’s work is endlessly referenced in the work of Wim Wenders whose Lighting Over Water (1980) is an experimental documentary about Ray’s final days, and Jean-Luc Godard once said “cinema is Nicholas Ray.” Rebel Without a Cause as well as some of Ray’s other films laid the visual and thematic groundwork for the French New Wave. Ray’s use of shadow in this film calls to mind Hollywood Film Noir, films built around the brand of masculinity that would’ve informed Jim of how men are expected to behave. Strong composition and very meticulous camera movements make the world of this film a heightened one, bright shocks of colour burn against the backdrop of the beige and grey adult-built concrete world. A scene in a planetarium in which the worth of life is considered against all of space and time is smart and patient and it places Jim firmly in the ranks of other young and angry existential heroes with Hamlet, Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield.
Rebel Without a Cause is dense and energetic, and burning with conviction. Ray’s directorial efforts resulted in nothing short of a cultural phenomenon and while the film is socially and culturally apropos and its parts have been bastardized by kitschy Americana, the film does not seem to have aged a day. James Dean, who only ever made 3 films in his short career (and was dead before the release of two of them) cemented himself as an enduring icon of American youth and youth culture of the 1950s through his performance of Jim. Every image, every word feel centrally connected to the film as a whole and few films are as structurally sound. It is refreshing to visit the films that are so battered and worn out by pop culture, especially when they are as powerful and deft as this one.