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.