Rebel Without A Cause (1955)

Why do we do this?
Well you got to do something.  Now don’t ya?

I was interested to see what the hype was all about when it comes to Rebel Without a Cause.  It is a movie that never fails to make it on a list of influential or greatest movies of all time lists.  With that said, I tried to go into this movie with as little expectations as I could.

Rebel Without a Cause follows the plight of a group of high school kids as they try to make sense of the world around them.  Trying to find your identity can be tough, but when you are constantly moving from town to town it can be even harder.  Jim Stark, played by James Dean, is forced to start fresh in a new town and the first 24 hours are not a roller coaster, they are a rocket ship.

The first thing I want to mention is that the title misled me going in.  I assumed that “The Rebel” was void of cause, not in search of a cause.  This was one of the biggest surprises for me.  Jim Stark is a lost adolescent trying to make sense of the world around him.  He is relying on the example and lessons taught to him by his parents, but they are unable to give him clear and informative guidance.  This parallel runs through several characters in the story.  Judy, played by Natalie Wood, and “Plato”, played by Sal Mineo, also struggle with parental guidance.  In Judy’s case she is confused as to why her father is uncomfortable giving her affection, driving her to lash out for attention.  Plato’s wealthy parents are both absent, leaving him to fend for himself emotionally.

Each character’s parents represent different levels of compassion and attention.  Plato’s parents are completely absent.  In place of emotional support his parents provide Plato with financial support.  Left alone to cope with his emotional distress he is prone to violence, specifically with his mother’s gun. 

Judy’s parents are present, yet emotionally distant from her.  Specifically, her Dad’s choice to be less affectionate with her, because she is too old for that, causes her distress.  This is exasperated by the fact that her father will in the same breath dote on her younger brother and give him the attention she desires.  Perhaps it is not strictly attention, but love and acknowledgement that she is after. 

Jim’s  parents on the other hand, are like helicopter parents.  Anytime he gets into any trouble they do everything in their power to protect him, including move to a new town.  This makes it hard for Jim to learn how to take responsibility for his actions.  His main drive throughout the movie is to identify the principles he must live by in order to become a man.  He wants to look up to his father, but he finds it difficult because he sees his father as a coward.  To make matters worse Jim’s father is unable to stand up for Jim or himself.  Jim’s parents are constantly contradicting one another, especially when it comes to matters related to Jim.  

The major thread tying all of them together is the confusing messages and guidance being passed down from their parents.  In each case the children are left with mixed messages as to what they should do, how they should behave, and how they are supposed to conduct themselves in the world.  The hurdle the children must overcome is that parents, guardians, and the police do not have all of the answers.  In fact, they are struggling to find the answers themselves.

After a devastating car accident, Jim, Judy, and Plato decide to hide in an abandoned mansion.  This quickly transforms into the formation of an idealistic family made up of Jim, as the dad, Judy as the mother, and Plato as the child.  Jim, Judy, and Plato’s desire to have a nice happy family makes sense.  As they are coming-of-age they are beginning to see the chaos in the world.  The uncontrollable events and facets of life can be scary.  When they form their momentary idealistic family, they are trying to feel stable, comfortable, and secure.  Inevitably, chaos disrupts this and they are forced to return to reality.  Unfortunately, if you do not have the tools to cope with reality then you may not survive.

Apparently Rebel Without a Cause is one of the earliest film examples of the “coming-of-age” genre.  This combined with James Dean’s sincere bad boy persona, help explain the influence this movie has had on the film industry and generations since.  There is excellent work on the part of director, Nicholas Ray and cinematographer, Ernest Haller, to use the camera to emphasize the story and engage the audience in a refreshing way. 

A great scene takes place in the Stark house when Jim confronts his parents with his dilemma and is seeking advice.  Once the arguing gets heated a dutch tilt shot puts Jim and his parents on an equal plane.  During this sequence the roles of power shift between characters and the blocking helps emphasize those changes.  This is a great example of how the writing, acting, camera work, and everything else involved came together to make a compelling film.  In addition to that, it also helps demonstrate the confused guidance mentioned above.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Directed by: Nicholas Ray

Cinematography: Ernest Haller

Screenplay by: Stewart Stern

Score by: Leonard Rosenman

Starring: James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo

Runtime: 1h 51m

Genre: Drama, Romance

Distributed by: Warner Bros.

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