Rebel Without a Cause is probably Nicholas Ray’s most iconic work and if not his best, still packs an emotional wallop and is also a rather dense and thematic work. It also contains James Dean’s performance that made him into a legend. Although he would display greater range and acting ability in the film that followed, Giant (1956), his work here is fascinating. One can view this film in different ways then. Is it the James Dean show? Or it is a Nicholas Ray film? When I was about 16 years old, this was my favorite film. I didn’t know Nicholas Ray from Adam but was rather obsessed with Dean. Everything this film spoke to was a sort of calling card for me in high school. I probably watched it twice a year for a while there. It had been 10 years or so since I’ve seen it and since then I’ve come to understand Nicholas Ray and his artistry and now I see the film more as an interesting combination of popular appeal and subversive filmmaking.
Rebel stars James Dean as Jim Stark, a high school student who is found lying drunk on the pavement at the beginning of the film. He’s brought into the police station where we begin to understand he is a “troubled youth.” He routinely gets into trouble, has a hard time making friends, hates the way his mother and grandmother pick on his rather meek father. In the police station we also meet Judy (Natalie Wood) who was on the streets because her father roughed her up earlier in the evening. Additionally we meet Plato (Sal Mineo) who drowned some puppies earlier in the day and whose parents are divorced and also absent. All three attend Dawson High. Most of the film takes place in a single day, as James attends his first day at his new school, meets Judy (who is at first standoffish towards him) and Plato (who idolizes him as a father figure among other things), gets in a fight with a bully, is challenged to a “chickie-run”, fights with his parents, falls deeply in love and witnesses the deaths of two friends.
Ray’s film contains some brilliant domestic elements and the entire work is rife with symbolism, fantastic framing and camerawork. One of the key elements on display are the poor parent/child relationships. Jim’s father is a huge disappointment to him. Played by Jim Bacchus, Mr. Stark is a timid, bumbling man, unable to provide his son with any real direction or advice. Jim tries at one point to get a straight answer from his dad, but instead his dad wants to pull out paper and pencil and start righting out pros and cons. Jim’s mother is critical and perfectionist and henpecks Mr. Stark constantly. Jim refers to his family members as a “zoo”. Plato’s parents are divorced and his mother has left the house, so he lives with the housekeeper and is lonely, desperately seeking a father figure and friends. Judy’s relationship with her father, in my opinion is rather abusive. We meet her at the police station, and in a brilliant piece of acting by Natalie Wood, we find out her father has called her a tramp and tried to rub off her lipstick. She is in tears as she explains she thought he would “rub off my lips.” Later in the film when she is seeking fatherly love he slaps her across the face. Her mother’s pathetically blank expression during this scene is indicative of Judy’s broken relationship with her mother as well. It is clear her mother does not understand Judy’s needs. One of the overarching themes is that the flaws of the parents have clearly affected the children and in fact the film almost out and out blames the parents for the behavior of the children.
In one of the film's most effective motifs, the interplay between James, Judy, and Plato make up a surrogate family. Plato idolizes Jim as a father, talking about going hunting and fishing with him. In the scene at the
Jim and Judy make believe they are looking at the house as potential buyers
and talking of children. Judy even hums a lullaby to Plato and he dozes off to
sleep in this scene. The three of them together form a cathartic family….one in
which they can be themselves and not be judged. Later in the film, Jim tries
to rationalize and compromise with Plato as a father does with his own son. None of this feels forced at all, but becomes an essential component of the
story. They are all friends, but individually form certain components of this surrogate family. Three uniquely framed scenes highlight the growing
relationship of the three (shown below). We first see the three of them framed in the police
station, but they are not together. In fact Judy is behind glass and isolated.
Next we see the three of them at the top of the cliff following the
chickie-run….Jim reaching out his hand to Judy with Plato framed right
between them. Finally the fully formed family unit is framed together in loving
embrace….Judy caressing Jim with Plato being comforted by the presence and
glow of familial love. Ernest Haller’s Cinemascope framing is magnificent
during these and many other moments. There are some fascinating camera tilts
during the scene in the Stark home as James argues with his parents, as well as
another camera tilt during the climactic scene of the film when Plato runs out
of the observatory. These unsettling camera movements are elements of the
underlying fracturing of “perfect domesticity”. Big Mansion
Additionally the use of the color red (the credit titles, Judy’s jacket and lipstick, Jim's jacket, Plato’s sock) is effective within the framing as highlights of emotional pain, confusion, and aggression. Judy’s bright red jacket and lips beacon as sexually suggestive in the opening scene. By the end of the film, she is in a more comfortable pink dress as she has become the ideal, sensitive maternal figure. Jim’s red jacket, a possession and symbol of his rebellion earlier, is used as a token of grief when laid upon his dead friend at the end. Plato (Mineo - himself a homosexual), in perhaps a not-so-subtle way, is seemingly confused as towards his feelings for Jim….is he a father figure or perhaps a potential lover? This confusion is paralleled in his wearing one red sock and one blue sock. It is to Mineo’s credit that this element of the film is terrifically sincere and unforced. We should all consider ourselves lucky that Nicholas Ray changed in mid-filming from black and white traditional stock to full color and Cinemascope. It is not an understatement to say that Ray was the greatest Cinemascope director. He used wide framing perhaps better than anyone ever has.
Dean’s performance is full of affectation and ticks, but he is very good in subtle moments as well, like when he kisses Judy on the forehead as they’re sitting talking under the tree. Sal Mineo is wonderfully brooding and believable as a kid that no one seems to like. Natalie Wood gives one of the best performances of her career as Judy, and that first scene in the police station is a knockout. True there are awkward or even dated elements to this film, but it retains an underlying inspired sincerity. Ray found a way to identify with these youths rather than objectify them and that’s what keeps it grounded in their reality. My favorite scene in the film is the Mansion scene where the three leads romp and play and enjoy their friendship without judgement from the outside world. Yes it’s just a respite from the violence that will follow in a few hours, but it’s a beautiful moment of such tenderness that it feels like a mini-lifetime.