James Dean is a what-could-have-been. He was a legend the size of Brando relatable to first youths to fight conformity in the 50s. He was a method actor and naturalistic, improvising many of his movements. But the revolution that was James Dean was a dream cut short, after only three films. His death, resulting from a car accident just months before the release of Rebel without a Cause, was cinema’s sorest loss. His talent was a gift destroyed just as the movies were beginning to realize what they had on their hands. What we are left with today are the films, thoughts of a career that never came to be, and the icon.
Rebel without a Cause is James Dean’s most iconic work, and the one that has transcended the tragic memory of his death. If the film has become something of a capsule as the decades went by it is because it understood its era so well that its representation and concern for the youth of the period that it is a direct aim at the post-war years.
Jim Stark, Dean’s rebellious yet sensitive avatar in the film, is a loner standing in harsh contrast to the white-picket-fenced suburbia. There is a contrast of a drunken Jim in front of a nice looking home. In his own home scene everything looks perfect. But it is a deceptive façade. Everyone has problems.
No doubt, this figure was one of the leading models of the counterculture a decade later. If Jim has an ancestor himself it is from the world of literature and his name is Holden Caulfield. He always feels the need to protect something. Look at the way he tucks in the toy monkey in the opening. Later, he offers his coat to his friend Plato (Sal Mineo). Perhaps he is a rebel because he brings emotion into an emotionally sterile suburbia. But Dean’s Jim is still very influential. What young actor doesn’t want to model himself on James Dean? That says more about his timeless appeal than the movie itself.
No slight intended toward the film, however. It was the first film to take teenagers seriously. Instead of resolving everything with a prom, Rebel without a Cause delivered an honest portrayal of widely ignored issues such as the need to fit in, peer pressure, and bullying.
As it wears no rose-colored glasses, Rebel without a Cause begins not at a sock hop but in a police station. One particular officer, Ray (Edward Platt), is a progressive officer in that he understands the kids and acts as a benevolent parent figure. As for the rest of the adults, the movie presages the 1990s in the way it looks at them through the eyes of an alienated and disillusioned male. Jim wants his father (Jim Backus) to be tougher. Mr. Stark, however, confuses love with material possession. “Don’t I buy you a lot of things?”, he asks Jim. Jim’s response is, “You’re tearing me apart!” He wants advice from his father but the old man can only provide him with wishy-washy words. He can’t give direct answers and speaks in clichés.
Parental abandonment is the central theme of Rebel without a Cause. Plato’s dad walked out on him and his mother stays away too long. Judy (Natalie Wood in her best performance) has a father that won’t even look at her. All of these themes have since become common, but would never have been recognized were it not for Rebel without a Cause.
Indeed, the Silent Generation had a lot in common with Generation X, including disillusionment with the world, disaffection, and a lot of masculine anger (especially toward fathers). “I don’t ever want to be like him,” is what Jim says about his father, but such sentiments were just as prevalent 30, even 40, years later. Jim freaks out at the sight of his father in an apron, a sign of his concern for his masculine identity.
Yes, at times Rebel without a Cause can seem over-the-top in various respects. But this feeds into its vision of a teenage perspective perfectly. For teens, everything is exaggerated, loaded with drama, and of magnified significance. The bad seeds that cross Jim’s path seem tame today, but their kind posed a genuine threat in the 50s. As Thomas Hine’s The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager explains, the 1950s saw a rise in imagined concern about juvenile delinquency. Of course, their later game of “chicken” is anything but tame. The English punk movement of the 70s, in fact, would adopt their style of leather jackets, rolled-up jeans, and big hair.
Jim wants to fit in with this gang but they won’t accept him. Possibly, they see him as a threat (he is James Dean). During a planetarium lecture, Jim is told that the world will eventually end. This plays into his eternal question of why do we matter and encourages his philosophy of living for the moment. The fight at the observatory is still fairly tense and a reminder of how cruel teens can really be to each other.
Being called “chicken” is the worst insult Jim can receive. It is a blow to his masculinity and links him to his father. Jim is a rebel in a beatnik sense. He’s thoughtful, philosophical, a loner, and even sort of a pacifist. The other kids are rebels in a more dangerous way. They are the titular “rebels without a cause”. At the same time, though, Jim has been conditioned by the society where he grew up, as his ideas of masculinity are quite traditional.
The chicken game played with cars (with the iconic image of Judy signaling the race to begin) is sort of an initiation and may mean more respect for Jim. When Buzz (Corey Allen), Jim’s rival, is killed after his car drives off the cliff, however, any hope of Jim joining his gang is extinguished.
Rebel without a Cause is an extremely innovative film, giving equal attention to the angst of its female lead and her own paternal conflict. Judy’s father never kisses her because he seems to be afraid of his attraction to her. This Freudian subtext was a very daring inclusion on the movie’s part.
After the tragic outcome of the car race, three outcasts (Jim, Judy, and Plato) become friends. There are two romantic undertones here, one of them being Plato’s feelings toward Jim. Sal Mineo would later say that Plato was one of the first gay teenagers in film. They fill Jim’s void and he becomes noticeably less angry around them. His parents, on the other hand, want to pretend bad things never happen in their neck of the woods. Jim’s desperate attempt to reach out to his parents (to be listened to and understood) is replied to with “in ten years you’ll never know this happened.” Director Nicholas Ray films this quarrel with an upside down shot of Mrs. Stark (Ann Doran) and canted shots resembling Jim’s disrupted world.
It is not only Mr. Stark who fails Jim by not standing up for him but also Ray, the cop also abandons him. He promised Jim he would always be there to talk, but isn’t when Jim comes to the station looking for him.
When the three fugitives hide in a mansion, they create a makeshift family. Making believe they are adults helps them feel good. They believe they can do a better job than their parents. Interestingly, they act out the roles of life in suburbia while also mocking it. But here is a revealing moment. Judy says she wants a man “who can be gentle and kind”. This runs contrary to Jim’s idea of what a man is. When Jim considers this, Plato begins to feel as if Jim abandoned him, just as his father did. Plato goes crazy and runs into the planetarium, appropriately enough the stage for the “meaninglessness of life”. Jim offers Plato his iconic red jacket, coming full circle. In the final confrontation with the police, Plato is killed wearing Jim’s jacket. Symbolically, a part of Jim dies with Plato. The ending is bittersweet, as there is a death but Jim seems to be able to connect with his parents better.
Is Rebel without a Cause dated? Superficially, yes. But the deeper part of the movie, the emotional aspect, isn’t. That’s why a lot of teens still like this film. They appreciate how seriously it takes them. Their problems are for once treated with as much attention as are the problems of adults.
Surprisingly, Rebel without a Cause doesn’t feel exploitative. The bad kids don’t listen to rock music (which in lesser films was often depicted as being the cause of delinquency) or come from poor families (even middle-class kids can be mean). Jim Stark isn’t even a teen devil, but a thoughtful and sensitive boy who, like many teens past and present, makes some bad decisions in the interest of fitting in. Rebel without a Cause was one of the first films to prove that teens are people too.