Movie Project #41: Rebel Without a Cause [1955]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Rebel Without a Cause [1955]

Rebel Without a Cause [1955]
Director: Nicholas Ray
Writers: Stewart Stern (screen play), Irving Shulman (adaptation by), Nicholas Ray (from a story by)
Country: USA
Genre: Drama/Romance
Starring: James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Jim Backus, Ann Doran, Corey Allen
Running Time: 111 minutes

When Rebel Without a Cause is discussed today, the first thing to be brought up is always James Dean. And why wouldn’t he be? We have heard all about his tragic death at age 24 shortly before the film was released, and his performance as a troubled youth cemented his legacy. On top of that, Rebel Without a Cause is considered a landmark film, one that captured the voice of a new, young generation in the 1950s. Its cultural importance cannot be denied; unfortunately, it has not aged all that well.

James Dean plays 17-year-old Jim Stark, a high school delinquent who is “torn apart” by his submissive father (the wonderful Jim Backus) and his demanding mother (Ann Doran). After enrolling in a new school, Stark does his best to fit in, but ends up angering a local bully named Buzz (Corey Allen). This thug, accompanied by his goon friends (one of whom is a very young Dennis Hopper), challenges Jim to a knife fight. This doesn’t end well, so Buzz proposes a game of “chickie run” — the two of them will meet up on top of a hill and race stolen cars to the edge of a cliff. The first person to jump out of their car before it flies off the cliff is the “chicken.” It’s an incredibly reckless game, yes, and it’s made all the more meaningless when Buzz remarks to Jim beforehand, “You know something? I like you.” Jim questions why they need to do this then, to which Buzz replies, “You’ve gotta do something. Don’t you?”

Rebel Without a Cause [1955]

When Jim isn’t dealing with testosterone-fueled hooligans, he is hanging out with his only two friends, fellow schoolmates Judy (Natalie Wood) and Plato (Sal Mineo). Later in the film, while on the run from the bullies, the three of them seek refuge in an abandoned mansion. In a bizarre sequence, Jim and Judy act as part of a fantasy family, playing father and mother to the embattled Plato. The three of them share a common bond through teenage angst and broken families, but the whole scenario just feels awkward. Two 17 year olds pretending they are the parents of a 15 year old? It doesn’t help that Plato appears to have feelings for Jim, though given the Hays Code at the time, this is only subtly hinted at.

There are several memorable moments in the film, such as Jim’s classic “You’re tearing me apart!” line as well as the aforementioned “chickie run”, but many of the plot developments feel far-fetched. After the horrifying death of a classmate, everyone goes on with their lives as if nothing ever happened. Jim and Judy even fall in love almost immediately after this tragedy, despite the fact that the student who was killed was her very own boyfriend. It all becomes too much, and it’s hard to take any of the film seriously.

Rebel Without a Cause [1955]

Don’t get me wrong, the film is still entertaining, but I can’t help but wonder if it would have been as significant if James Dean didn’t die so young. Dean does deliver a strong performance here, commanding the screen every time he appears, though it does take some time to get used to the idea of him being a teenager (he looks every bit of 24). His character is unforgettable with his bright red jacket, blue jeans and his uncombed hair, and as such he is entrenched in American lore. Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo are quite good as his high school counterparts, but I was particularly impressed with Jim Backus as Stark’s father. The scene with him, in a frilly apron, on his knees cleaning up a mess on the floor before his wife finds out is just heartbreaking. The poor guy is so emasculated in a film overflowing with masculinity.

I can only imagine how groundbreaking Rebel Without a Cause was back in its day, and as such, it remains a worthwhile watch. I would hesitate to call this a *great* film, but it is an important one, and sometimes that’s all that is needed.

7/10

Movie Project #19: Rififi [1955]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Rififi [1955]

Rififi [1955]
Director: Jules Dassin
Writers: Auguste Le Breton (novel), Jules Dassin (adaptation), René Wheeler (collaboration) and Auguste Le Breton (collaboration)
Country: France
Genre: Crime/Drama/Thriller
Starring: Jean Servais, Carl Möhner, Robert Manuel, Jules Dassin, Marcel Lupovici, Marie Sabouret
Running Time: 122 minutes

Reason for inclusion: I noticed this on several “best of” lists for film noir, crime, the 1950s, etc. and wanted to make it a point to finally see it.

Accolades: Won Best Director at Cannes Film Festival, part of the Criterion Collection, Roger Ebert’s Great Movies and Quentin Tarantino’s Coolest Movies of All Time

When it comes to heist films, there is Rififi and then there is everything else.

Fresh out of prison after serving five years for stealing jewelry, Tony (aka “The Stéphanois”, played by Jean Servais) is struggling to adapt to the life he once knew. He drinks too much, has a nasty cough that suggests possible lung disease, has hit a cold streak playing cards, and to top it all off, his former girlfriend is now property of a Parisian mob boss. Needless to say, when a colleague (Jo, played by Carl Möhner) approaches him with the idea of pulling off another jewelry heist, it doesn’t take long for Tony to warm up to the idea.

Two other men — Mario (Robert Manuel) and master safecracker César (Jules Dassin) — enter the picture, and the group begins developing an increasingly detailed plan to rob a popular Parisian jeweler’s storefront. Their research is immaculate — they make multiple trips to the store, checking in on its security system while also learning the inticracies of the building itself. The store’s alarm system is easily triggered, as mere light vibrations will set it off for the whole neighborhood to hear.

Rififi [1955]

In a bit of ingenious filmmaking, we are able to watch the group as they buy an identical version of the alarm and start pondering ways to mute it. Tampering with the wires and the insides of the alarm will immediately cause a ruckus, so there appears to be no clear way to disable it. Just as the men are starting to lose hope on the operation, Tony finds a way to quiet the system using fire extinguisher foam. Eureka!

The actual heist is the stunning centerpiece of the film. For nearly 30 minutes, Dassin shows the group executing their plan, most of which takes place in complete silence (meaning no music either). It’s a rather amazing accomplishment, as there is so much tension and suspense without anything being said. This type of sequence could never happen today.

But yet with Rififi, there is still *more* after the heist. Here the criminals have to deal with the aftermath of their feat, and it isn’t pretty. The film gets shockingly violent after this, especially by 1955’s standards.

Rififi [1955]

Perhaps even more incredible, the film manages to turn these anti-heroes into likable characters. Tony, in particular, is an absolute brute at the beginning of the film. How can we root for someone so self-loathing who also unnecessarily smacked around his ex-girlfriend? Yet by the end of the film, we see that he *does* have a set of morals, and we want to see him succeed. All four thieves follow the “code of silence” after the heist, which is admirable in its own right.

Rififi is still an impressive piece of filmmaking, and it’s clear that it has influenced nearly every major heist film since its release. It’s easy to see why Quentin Tarantino selected it as one of the “coolest movies of all-time” — hell, without Rififi, there would be no Reservoir Dogs. A must see.

9/10