Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
Rebel Without A Cause (1955)
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Rebel Without A Cause (1955) is a film that sympathetically views rebellious, American, restless, misunderstood, middle-class youth. The tale of youthful defiance, which could have been exploitative - but wasn't, provides a rich, but stylized (and partly out-dated) look at the world of the conformist mid-1950s from the perspective of the main adolescent male character - a troubled teen with ineffectual parents, who faces a new school environment.

The screenplay (by Stewart Stern from an adaptation by Irving Shulman of an original storyline synopsis by director Nicholas Ray) was based on an actual case study (contained in Dr. Robert Lindner's 1944 factual book titled Rebel Without a Cause: The Story of a Criminal Psychopath) of a delinquent, imprisoned teenage psychopath in the post-war years. The film was originally titled The Blind Run - the same as the title of the series of vignettes, both violent and strangely erotic, that Ray had penned. The actual film's title, Rebel Without a Cause, was the same as the title of Lindner's psychological study - signifying the rebellious and idealistic protagonist's search for a 'cause' - honesty and decency in a hypocritical world.

The colorful wide-screen Cinemascope feature is most remembered for being the film that best presented the talent of young charismatic cult star James Dean, shortly before his premature death in 1955. It opened at the Astor Theatre in New York on October 29th, 1955, about a month after the death of its star (on September 30, 1955) on a highway in his sports car.

It also served as a springboard for the acting careers of its two other stars Natalie Wood (in her first non-child 'adult' role) and unknown 16 year-old actor Sal Mineo. It affords a classic, semi-glamorized portrait of three troubled, frustrated, anguished, and identity-seeking teenagers - all outsiders, alienated and outcast from the world and values of parents and adults, who attain maturity through rebellion and tragic circumstances. In the film, Dean formed a friendly bond with the other two characters: Wood as confused teenaged Judy, and Mineo as a strange, adoring boy named Plato - the film's sacrificial lamb by film's end.

The reactionary film is considered Hollywood's best 50's film of rebellious and restless youth (and sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll) that spawned many other lesser teen exploitation films in its wake. [Note: Other films that caused the same sensation included the earlier 50s film The Wild One (1953) with Marlon Brando, Blackboard Jungle (1955), and High School Confidential (1958).] It has been surmised that Sal Mineo's teen-aged character in the film was obviously gay and troubled by typical problems of in-the-closet homosexuals in the 50s - the film disguises his problems, but hints at the possibility that he is seeking out Dean's character because he rejects fake machismo.

[Note: All three leading stars, who experienced troubled lives of their own, suffered premature deaths under unusual and tragic circumstances - a car crash at age 24 in 1955, a mysterious drowning at age 43 in 1981, and a stabbing-murder at age 37 in 1976.]

The film received only three Academy Awards nominations (without wins): Best Supporting Actor (Sal Mineo with the first of two unsuccessful career nominations), Best Supporting Actress (Natalie Wood with the first of three unsuccessful career nominations), and Best Motion Picture Story (Nicholas Ray). It wasn't nominated for either Best Picture (won by the short, unassuming romantic drama Marty (1955)) or Best Director for Nicholas Ray. Ironically, Dean was not nominated for his role in this film (although it eventually became his iconic career role), but was nominated instead for his Best Actor performance as insecure, tortured, neurotic loner and unappreciated son Caleb "Cal" Trask in his first major film role, East of Eden (1955). He was also nominated as Best Actor in the next year for his performance as Jett Rink in his third and final film, Giant (1956), filmed in the summer and early fall of 1955 and released in 1956 - a year after his death.

The time frame of the film's plot is set over a little more than one twenty-four hour period in status-conscious mid-50's Los Angeles, and confined to a limited number of locations. Both the beginning and ending of the film occur at nighttime (late night and early morning hours respectively) and are marked by the sound of approaching and departing police car sirens. The film ends with the fatal transference of Dean's scarlet red-jacket/windbreaker to Mineo [referenced in the final scene of Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show (1974)].

Befitting classic tragedy (partly inspired by Shakespeare's melodrama/tragedy Romeo and Juliet) in an arching pattern, the narrative film is neatly divided into five acts:

  • the exposition of the dysfunctional conflict between parents and children - all three children are experiencing serious problems due to a lack of a father figure
  • interaction between the teenage characters, both befriending and taunting
  • the climactic challenge of the daredevil 'chickie run'
  • the peaceful and loving, but transitory denouement following the fatal challenge
  • and the final tragedy of the last act when the three young people are brought together and only two survive to enter into adulthood and maturity

The 2005 book, Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making Rebel Without a Cause by authors Lawrence Frascella and Al Weisel, documented many of the gossipy rumors and truths about the film's making and its principals, including such facts as: 43 year-old director Nicholas Ray and youthful upcoming actor Dennis Hopper were both sleeping with 16 year-old Natalie Wood, the choreographed on-screen knife fight (with real knives) drew actual blood, Natalie Wood was replaced by an extra for the long-shot view of her signaling the start of the chickie-run, and all three iconic red jackets used by James Dean in the film have disappeared.

Plot Synopsis

Behind the credits, the film opens in Los Angeles with one of the three teenagers, the major character, lone troublemaker Jim Stark (James Dean) seen tipsy-drunk in the darkness, lying contentedly (in a fetal position) on a sidewalk curb with a beatific smile on his face. He has a wind-up toy monkey next to him [one of the film's many references to animals]. Acting like a child playing house, he sets the clockwork animal to 'sleep' underneath a newspaper blanket - the toy monkey serves as a symbol of his own essential innocence, sensitivity and immaturity. Although disheveled, drunk and lying in the gutter, Jim is dressed in 'adult' clothes - a dark suit and tie, to cover up his emotional confusion. Along with dissonant jazzy music on the soundtrack, an unseen police car sounds its sirens [the film opens and closes with the sound of sirens of police cars], and the authorities drag him into the lobby of the Police Station (Juvenile Division). They bring him in for "plain drunkenness."

The scene in the police station cleverly introduces the three principal characters as they are each separately hauled in for varying reasons on this late Easter night, and their paths cross. Behind wooden-framed, glass partitions off the lobby, two other middle-class, misunderstood, alienated teenagers are also being held for their anti-social behavior: a pretty, unloved girl named Judy (Natalie Wood) in a bright-red outfit with matching red lipstick, and an emotionally-disturbed, anguished 'orphan' named John ('Plato') (Sal Mineo). [The color red is significant - it is associated with Judy's wildness - her trampy dress, her lipstick, etc. Jim will also adopt a red jacket for much of the film, and link himself to her defiance.] All of them are connected together by their problems - they all suffer from a lack of love and feelings of abandonment, and they all experience difficulties relating to their parents.

Judy tells a very patient, sympathetic juvenile-offenders officer, Ray Fremick (Edward C. Platt), the only truly responsible adult figure (father figure) in the film, that she is experiencing problems with her father who has withdrawn his physical affections and love now that she is older and wears lipstick. She sobs that her father resists and reproaches her grown-up maturity. He causes her pain when he labels her a "dirty tramp" - after she has applied red lipstick and dressed up for him. Rejecting her, he showed his disapproval by smearing the lipstick off her lips:

Judy: He must hate me.
Ray: What?
Judy: He hates me.
Ray: What makes you think he hates you, Judy?
Judy: I don't think, I know. He looks at me like I was the ugliest thing in the world. He doesn't like my friends. He doesn't like one thing about me. He called me - he called me a dirty tramp, my own father.
Ray: Do you think your father really means that?
Judy: Yes. No. I don't know. I mean, maybe he doesn't mean it, but he acts like he does. We were all together. We were gonna celebrate Easter and we were gonna catch a double bill. Big deal! So I put on my new dress and I came out, and he grabbed my face and he started rubbing off all the lipstick. I thought he'd rub off my lips. And I ran out of that house.

She has been picked up wandering about alone at one o'clock at night after curfew, and has been mistaken for a streetwalker "looking for company." Ray thinks her behavior is one way to get back at her father, and to get him to pay attention by running away. She cries: "I'll never get close to anybody." To force a conversation between Judy and her father, Ray phones her home number to arrange for Judy to be picked up by him: ("We'll ask your dad to come and pick you up"). But Ray is told that her father refuses and her mother will be coming instead: ("Your mother will pick you up"). Judy becomes emotionally exasperated: "My mother!...You said you'd call my father!" When calmed by Ray to "take it easy," Judy responds with more rebelliousness: "Oh, sure!"

Jim drunkenly imitates and mimics the sound of a passing police siren, almost a cry for help in itself, while sprawled on an elevated shoeshine chair in the lobby of the station. Another extremely troubled teenager, John "Plato" Crawford (Sal Mineo), who has been brought to the station by his ultimately powerless black housekeeper-nanny (Marietta Canty), is offered Jim's dark brown jacket to keep warm, but refuses it (a foreshadowing of a different response in a similar scene in the film's climax.) [The paternal act of kindness is typically rejected by the hurt boy.] Judy is informed that her mother rather than her father will be coming shortly to pick her up, and she blurts out: "My mother!...You said you'd call my father." As she leaves, Judy inadvertently leaves behind a small, flower-decorated compact case.

Jim's father (James Backus, the voice of the cartoon character Mr. Magoo) and mother (Ann Doran) arrive at the station to retrieve him. His father, stiffly dressed in fancy formal dinner wear [suggesting his personality], often calls his son: "Jimbo." His obviously middle-to-upper class parents have had to leave an elite country club dinner party, and they are disapproving and embarrassed by his delinquent behavior.

At the same time, a third, extremely troubled, sullen teenager, John Crawford ("Plato") is brought into another partitioned room. The officer calls his name twice to get his attention - he is distracted by looking toward Jim in the adjoining hallway. He is there because he shot and killed a litter of puppies with a gun found in his mother's drawer.

[Note: Plato's acting-out aggression is quite meaningful - puppies never know their father, and the litter is eventually abandoned by the mother.]

He is in despair because his absent, divorced parents have abandoned him to the black maid/housekeeper. During questioning, he asserts to the juvenile officer: "Nobody can help me."

The housemaid answers all questions directed toward Plato, and explains how his mother habitually deserts him and his father left the family long ago:

It seems like she's always going away somewhere. She's got a sister in Chicago and she's gone there for the holiday...(His parents) they're not together, sir. We haven't seen him now in a long time.

It also is Plato's birthday and his absentee parents have forgotten about him - they are not around to celebrate: "I don't think it's right for a mother to go away and leave her child on his birthday." According to the nanny, Mrs. Crawford doesn't believe in having him see a psychiatrist ("a head-shrinker").

Jim's father tries downplaying his son's drinking. Both his parents argue together in officer Ray's company, while Jim hums and fidgets on the side. Jim is alienated from his conformist, indifferent parents in their Los Angeles suburb. His father also explains background about their family and their parenting - they have moved there as a result of their son's troubled behavior:

Jim's father: You see, we just moved here you understand, and uh, the kid hasn't got any friends, you understand, and we moved into a...
Jim: Tell him why we moved here.
Jim's father: Will you hold it Jim?
Jim: ...Tell the man why we moved here.
Jim's father: Will you hold it?
Jim: You can't protect me.
Jim's father: Do you mind if I try? Do - do you have to slam the door in my face? I try to get to him. What happens? (To Jim) Don't I buy everything you want? A bicycle, you get a bicycle, a car.
Jim: You buy me many things.
Jim's father: Well, not just buy. We give you love and affection, don't we? Well, then, what is it?

Their love is smothering and artificial. Jim finally can't listen any more and violently cries out to his bickering parents:

You're tearing me apart!...You say one thing, he says another, and everybody changes back again.

Depressed by his parents' frequent arguments, Jim blames his parents for causing the alienation and confusion in his family. Jim is separated from his parents and taken into Ray's inside office to be given a hearing. "Somebody ought to put poison in her Epsom salts," Jim suggests. With bottled-up frustration, Jim first lightly touches, kicks, and then boxes bare-knuckled with a large wooden desk, venting his pent-up crazed energy.

Anguished, Jim believes that he causes his parents to continually move from town to town to protect him. In other locations, he frequently "messed up" other boys who had called him 'chicken,' forcing the family's retreat and leaving him a friendless and lonely outcast in a new town. [The label 'chicken' regularly sets Jim off, reminding him of his father who is a weak figure literally 'hen-pecked' by his nagging mother - "she eats him alive and he takes it"]:

Jim: They think that they can protect me by moving around all the time.
Ray: You had a good start in the wrong direction back there. Why'd you do it?
Jim: Whaddya mean? Mess a kid up?
Ray: Yeah.
Jim: Called me 'chicken.'
Ray: And your folks didn't understand.
Jim: (He assents) They never do. They think that I can make friends if we move. Just move - everything will be roses and sunshine.
Ray: But you don't think that's the right solution.
Jim: (after spying on his parents through the round slot in the door) Aw, she eats him alive and he takes it.
Ray: Things pretty rough for you at home?
Jim: What a zoo!
Ray: What?
Jim: It's a zoo. He always wants to be my pal, you know? But how can I give him anything? If he's, well, I mean I love him and all that type of stuff, and I-I mean, I don't want to hurt him. But then, I don't, I don't, well I don't know what to do anymore, except maybe die.

Although he loves his father, he wishes his henpecked, ineffectual "chicken" father would one day stand up to his domineering mother who is only concerned about keeping up an image of respectability:

...if he had guts to knock Mom cold once, then maybe she'd be happy and then she'd stop pickin' on him, because they make mush outta him. You know, just mush.

Too weak to give him guidance about what it means to be a man, Jim's father has provided a weak role model, and Jim contemptuously doesn't want to be a "chicken" like his father: "I'll tell you one thing, I don't ever want to be like him." Ashamed of being thought a coward, Jim also wishes he wouldn't feel confused and that his parents would listen to him and give more helpful advice:

How can a guy grow up in a circus like that?...Boy, if, if I had one day when, when I didn't have to be all confused, and didn't have to feel that I was ashamed of everything...If I felt that I belonged someplace, you know, then...

After giving Jim a sympathetic hearing, Ray suggests that Jim come in to talk, shoot the breeze, anytime night or day, when he feels like it.

The next day, Jim's first day at his new high school, he nervously leaves for school from his suburban home without eating breakfast with his family, but he is forced to take his father's advice about choosing his friends and not letting them choose him:

You knock 'em dead like your old man used to...Watch out about choosing your pals. You know what I mean? Don't let 'em choose you.

For his first day at school, Jim again wears 'adult' clothing - a white shirt and dark sportscoat (and a tie that he immediately removes after walking outside). He joins next-door neighbor Judy on her way to school, recognizing her from the night before in the police station. In an awkward courtship dialogue, Jim tries to make conversation with her. Their simple words to each other reveal both attraction and repulsion, stand-offishness and interest, and juvenile attitudes and peer-pressures:

Jim: Hi. Hi. Wait a minute. (He runs down to her) Hi. I seen you before.
Judy: Well, stop the world.
Jim: Just bein' friendly.
Judy: Well now that's true. But life is crushing in on me.
Jim: Life can be beautiful. I know where it was.
Judy: Where what was?
Jim: Where I first saw ya. Everything going OK now? (Gesturing toward her house) You live here, don't you?
Judy: Who lives?
Jim: Hey, where's Dawson High?
Judy: At University and 10th.
Jim: Mmm. Thanks.
Judy: You wanna carry my books?
Jim: I got my car. You wanna go with me?
Judy: I go with the kids.
Jim: Yeah, I bet. (The gang's car screeches around the corner) All right.
Judy: You know, I bet you're a real yo-yo.
Jim: (under his breath): I love you too.

After offering her a ride to school, she turns unfriendly, rudely rejecting his request and calling him a name. She runs away to an open carload of other kids in a local gang. Judy kisses leather-jacketed boyfriend Buzz (Corey Allen), the leader of the gang. Judy continues to make fun of him in front of the gang: "That's a new disease." He asks directions to the school from them, receiving deliberately garbled information - but he smiles and turns away, not wishing to provoke hostility. As a newcomer to the school, he is warned about stepping on Dawson High School's insignia on the school's steps and eyed suspiciously by many of the students.

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