In an overheated moment part-way through Laslo Benedek's 1953 film The Wild One, Johnny (Marlon Brando) responds to the question "What are you rebelling against?" with "Watcha got?" That film detailed the restless rebellion of two motorcycle gangs, one bent on havoc, the other on less violent forms of social rebellion, and in Johnny lay the seed of many a Hollywood rebel, the pose of many an aspiring Hollywood actor, and the essence of a new breed of teenager. The following year, two films were released that immediately secured a position for their star as spokesperson for and icon of America's frustrated youth. In both East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause James Dean embodied a restless youngster unable to cope with his future because of the insecurity of the present and the failings of his parents. Unlike Johnny, his anger was still internalized, waiting for the moment of explosion. As director Nicolas Ray said: "When you first see Jimmy in his red jacket against his black Merc, it's not just a pose. It's a warning. It's a sign."
Ever in sympathy with the outsider, Ray fashioned a modern Romeo and Juliet story, a romance set among teenagers seeking satisfaction outside the traditional systems, misunderstood by their parents, misunderstanding and mistrusting of their parents' values. Soon America would explode with the sound of rock 'n roll, and teens would find a form of social rebellion that was non-violent but nonetheless highly charged. Ray caught both the immediate and timeless qualities of frustrated adolescence.
A plea for understanding of the day's younger generation, Rebel Without a Cause focused on three youngsters: Plato, whose divorced parents had abandoned him; Judy, who felt her father had withdrawn his love; and Jim, the offspring of a domineering mother and henpecked father. Disenchanted with their own families, these three alienated individuals sought a new sense of family, Plato and Judy looking to Jim as the head of the new unit. Unlike many of the teen rebel films which followed, Rebel placed a blame on the parents rather than the teens; teens were unbalanced by parents rather than the reverse.
The main action of the film is compressed into one day, a day in which Jim moves from confusion to a possible sense of clarity, from wanting to be a man to the beginning stages of becoming one. After going through the various initiation rights into manhood – knife fight, chicken run, girlfriend, homosexual advance, drinking, etc. – Jim begins to realize that perhaps responsibility for his life rests within himself. The end of the film, in which he asserts independence and self-determination rings slightly optimistic and therefore false, making the spectator wonder whether Jim has been liberated or tamed. If Jim-as-a-rebel refers to his status at the beginning of the film, what is his status after Plato's death?
In this, his first film in Cinemascope, Nicholas Ray signalled his reputation as the American master in the format. Having studied on a Frank Lloyd Wright scholarship, Ray had a clearly defined sense of spatial relations, an ability which made much of his film noir work especially charged. In his Cinemascope features he developed an aesthetic of the horizontal which, particularly in Rebel Without a Cause, lent a sensuality to the images of alienation. If this feeling pervaded exteriors, a sense of claustrophobia permeated the spatial tensions of the cluttered interiors.
Ray is also just beginning his metaphorical use of color in this film. Originally begun in black and white, Rebel was changed to color while in production, and Ray began to code his characters through changes in costume. Among the obvious examples are Plato's wearing of one black and one red sock, signalling his confusion, Jim's move from neutral browns to his bright red jacket, Judy's move from red to soft pink.
Ray's ability to elicit strong performances is a key to the successes of his best films. Having trained as an actor and having come to film through a friendship and apprenticeship with Elia Kazan, he was particularly attuned to the problems and the practices of performance. Previously he had worked in close collaboration with Humphrey Bogart for the actor's production company (Santana Films) on both Knock on Any Door and In a Lonely Place, and on Rebel Without a Cause he included Dean in the decisions of production. As actor Jim Backus wrote in his autobiography, Dean was practically the co-director of Rebel. Ray and Dean were so compatible that they had planned to collaborate on a second project on which Dean would serve as both actor and producer while Ray continued to direct (a project that was never realized because of Dean's death). Ray was later to establish that relationship with James Mason on Bigger Than Life.
Like Nick Romano in Knock on Any Door and Bowie in They Live By Night, Jim Stark is a misunderstood teenager seeking a better deal before it is too late. His gestures are those of alienation and pressurized anxiety, his overheated condition and need to cool down or explode best visualized by the scene in which he sensually presses a cold bottle of milk to his cheek. As much as any, that image became both a warning and a prediction.
Release Date: 1955
Starring: James Dean, Natalie Wood, Jim Backus, Ann Doran, Rochelle Hudson, William Hopper, Sal Mineo, Corey Allen, Dennis Hopper, Ed Platt, Steffi Sydney, Marietta Canty, Virginia Brissac, Beverly Long, Frank Mazzola, Robert Foulk, Jack Simmons, and Nick Adams
Director: Nicholas Ray
Writer: Stewart Stern
Source Citation: Tomlinson, Doug. "Rebel Without a Cause." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 1002-1004.