The first time I watched Rebel Without a Cause was at university. Back then it was to break down James Dean’s most famous movie, taking a critical look at the codes and conventions that made up teenage movies of the time and the creative ways director Nicholas Ray set about bending and breaking these unwritten rules.
But since watching Rebel Without a Cause all those years ago, the thing that struck me most about the story and Dean’s performance is despite a relatively simple plot and an abundance of one-dimensional adult characters, just how influential the movie remains and how even till this day, you can see shades of Jim (Dean), Plato (Mineo) and Judy (Wood) in every modern-day teenage drama.
There are elements of Rebel Without a Cause that have inevitably become dated and attitudes have changed since 1955, namely the roles men and women should take within the traditional nuclear family. Questions of what it is to be a man constantly tormented Jim. Getting no help from his father, a character who the film portrays as emaciated and weak, no longer the main breadwinner and having to rely on his wife to bring money into the home.
Meanwhile, Judy struggles with her transition into womanhood, upset by the frigid demeanour shown by her father, choosing to avoid overt affection as she blossoms into maturity. While Plato feels lonely and abandoned by his absent parents, constantly searching for substitute parental figures to take him in and make him feel loved. And depending on how you view the character, latent homosexual feelings towards Jim.
One of the most impressive elements of the film is the direction by Nicholas Ray, who brings this story to life in a vibrant and entertaining manner, starting with “iconic” opening credits with Jim drunkenly messing around with a toy monkey, though my personal favourite sequences and perhaps the movies most memorable set-piece is the ‘chickie run’, in which Jim and Buzz race a couple of stolen cars towards a cliff edge, daring to be the one who breaks last.
Sadly, James Dean didn’t live long enough to see the film hit theatres, but his performance as an angst-ridden teen in post-war America is truly terrific and filled with nuance, which makes it slightly puzzling that he didn’t receive an Oscar nomination while both Mineo & Wood did.
For a film that was made while the production code was still in effect, Rebel Without a Cause certanly pushes the boundaries of what would be acceptable to the movie censors of the period, which is why I believe the movie remains as beloved and influential to this day.
If you liked – East of Eden, The Wild One, Strangers on a Train