Rebel Without a Cause belongs to that small category of films in which its fame and place in history seems to outstrip the actual thing. Or, as they would say in style magazine parlance, it is one of the most ‘iconic’ films ever made. Surely, iconic is an overused expression, but in the case of Rebel Without a Cause, its real meaning does apply: the image of a sulky James Dean wearing a red bomber jacket, tight white vest, tight blue jeans and a squinty facial expression is one of the most recognisable images in Western pop culture.
Director Nicholas Ray was interested in the theme of juvenile delinquency, which he sought to re-contextualise as a family, rather than a ghetto, matter in Rebel Without a Cause. It was with this film that the idea of alienation entered the lexicon of popular sociology.
The theatrical re-release of the film marks the 50th anniversary of James Dean’s death. Dean was killed in a car accident on 30 September 1955, twenty-seven days before the release of the film on 27 October 1955. Rebel Without a Cause has the ingredients of a modern-day opera, both on and off-screen, with the offbeat Ray at the helm and three young stars who would all invariably meet tragic early deaths.
The narrative of the film is rather straightforward. Dean plays Jim Stark, a maladjusted teenager whose family has to constantly move cities in order to keep him out of trouble. Upon arriving in a new town, he sees his neighbour Judy (Natalie Wood) on her way to college with a gang of boys and girls who are the college ‘punks’. After an induction at the planetarium, during which Jim is befriended by the lonely and confused Plato (Sal Mineo), the gang corners Jim and challenges him to take part in a car race which ends in tragedy. Jim, Judy and Plato seek refuge from the turmoil of their misadventure in an abandoned mansion at the top of a hill where the rest of the action takes place.
This is old-style Hollywood scriptwriting: a lean storyline, clear-cut segments and emphatic introduction of characters and ideas, never wasting time with several sub-plots like most modern mainstream cinema does in an attempt to appear naturalistic. Rebel Without a Cause sometimes feels theatrical and distanced, which enhances the characters’ alienation from their families and society.
The things that make the film enticing to contemporary audiences are also some of its imperfections: the near hysterical feel of the dialogue, the obviousness of its psychological theories (Judy is a rebel because her father rejects her kisses since she is already a 16-year-old girl), and Dean’s exaggeratedly expressionist performance, which now looks naïve and dated.
Rebel Without a Cause is a strange, sad film with a strong undercurrent of lunacy that keeps it edgy and erratic. In a sense, it is also a documentary of its stars. We know as we watch it that Dean was about to die in real life. We see child star Natalie Wood, who gives the best performance amongst the three leading actors, trying her best to prove she’s a grown-up now (rumours abound that she slept with Ray during the shooting). She would die by drowning in 1981 in circumstances that are shrouded in mystery to this day. Sal Mineo, in his turn, conjured the archetypal afflicted gay soul in 1950s puritanical America. He would end up being stabbed to death in West Hollywood in 1976. Both Wood and Mineo were Oscar-nominated for their roles in this film.
Rebel Without a Cause is a requiem to the paranoia and claustrophobia of 1950s America as well as an anticipation of the social and cultural changes that were to sweep the country and the world in the early 1960s. That alone makes it a landmark piece of cinema.