Friday Film Focus: Rebel Without A Cause

“You’re tearing me apart!

Profoundly romantic and lacerating in its despair, Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause, a self-contained portrait of three isolated teenagers, is James Dean’s best performance (it ranks high in Ray’s work as well). Because he died in a car crash a month before the movie opened in 1955, Dean’s performance took on an eerie kind of fame. It was the posthumous complaint of an actor widely expected to have a long and famous career. Only East of Eden (1954) was released while Dean was alive. Giant, his last film, came out in 1956. From there, the legend took over.

The film has not aged well, and Dean’s performance seems more like a watered down version of Brando than the birth of an important talent. With that said, Rebel Without a Cause was enormously influential at the time. It represents a milestone in the creation of new idea about young people. Dean isn’t fussy here, but emotionally direct, tenderly seductive, protective of others, and blessed with courtly humor. The actor’s Jim Stark is clearly laboring under a burden of heightened sensitivity. This facet is why the ‘50s complacency of his parents and their milieu is, in his words, tearing him apart.

The shock impact in Rebel is perhaps greater because this is a pleasant middle-class community. The boys and girls attend a modern high-school. They are well-fed, dressed, and drive their own automobiles. The direction by Nicholas Ray is outstanding. He catches the mood of the sub-world of teenage savagery in an attention-holding manner. “What can you do when you have to be a man?” Jim Stark asks his father, the emasculated Frank Stark (Jim Backus). But his father doesn’t know. Jim comes from a household ruled by his overbearing mother (Ann Doran) and her mother (Virginia Brissac). The mother has kept the family moving from town to town in an apparent effort to keep her son out of trouble. She is also accused of refusing to “face” something, though what it is we never learn.

In the early 1950s, Jim’s unfocused rage fit neatly into pop psychology. Like Hamlet’s disgust at his mother’s betrayal of his father, Jim’s feelings mask a deeper malaise — a feeling that life is a pointless choice between being and not being. Stewart Stern’s screenplay can be didactic, but Ray and his young trio of actors transcend this limitation. Ray seems to understand the self-dramatizations and exaggerated melancholy of adolescence, but he portrays these qualities with deep affection, respect, and insight.

The most complicated aspect of the film, and the thing that makes it seem daring even today, is its sexuality. Ray was bisexual (as was Dean). He was sleeping with both Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo while they shot the film. He brings Wood’s beauty into full flowering and gets a simple, touching performance from her. With Mineo, Ray craftily put together a portrait of a tormented gay teenager. Stern’s script tells us that Plato is searching for a father figure in Jim, but the way Mineo looks at Dean leaves no modern audience in doubt as to what his real feelings are.

The dialogue of Stern’s screenplay and Irving Shulman’s adaptation catches the stumbling inarticulate voice of youth with singular accuracy. On the first day of high school, Dean is picked on by a tough juvenile gang headed by Corey Allen. To prove he isn’t “chicken,” Dean engages in a knife fight and the car contest, in which Allen is killed. Fearing that Dean will squeal to the cops, a group of youthful terrorists beat up Mineo — who arms himself with a gun and joins Dean and Natalie in a deserted mansion to which they have fled (when both found their parents unsympathetic). In the mansion, they engage in a curious charade in which Plato becomes a real estate agent, and Jim and Judy play a couple being shown through the home.

Later, in a tender scene, Plato goes to sleep at the feet of Jim and Judy, while she hums Brahms’ “Lullaby.” Jim then observes that they are like a family. The teenagers’ idyll in the deserted mansion is ended by school thugs (one of them a young Dennis Hopper). Plato, confused and unbalanced, starts firing a gun he took from his mother’s room. He finds refuge in the planetarium. Jim goes in to get him, and surreptitiously takes the bullets from the gun. Plato gets scared and runs, the cops see the gun, and they shoot him. When Plato is shot, Ray has Jim and Judy in the frame with him. He tilts the camera with the impact of the bullet; It’s one of the most devastating shots in film history because it visually annihilates the rapport the three teenagers have built up in an instant.

Jim and Judy go off together, but Ray underlines the film’s sense of loss by saving the last close-up for the only other person who loved Plato, his nurse (Marietta Canty). Like its hero, Rebel Without a Cause desperately wants to say something — yet doesn’t know what it is. If it did know, it would lose its fascination. More perhaps than it realized, it is a subversive document of its time.