#470) Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
OR “Angst for Nothing”
Directed by Nicholas Ray
Written by Stewart Stern. Story by Nicholas Ray. Adaptation by Irving Shulman.
Class of 1990
The Plot: Jim Stark (James Dean) is a mixed-up teenager, constantly rebelling against his misunderstanding parents (Jim Backus & Ann Doran). In 24 hours, Jim gets arrested for public drunkenness, runs afoul of teen gang leader Buzz Gunderson (Corey Allen) on a field trip at the Griffith Observatory, partakes in a knife fight and a deadly game of chicken, and closely bonds with Buzz’s girlfriend Judy (Natalie Wood) and social misfit Plato (Sal Mineo). “Rebel Without a Cause” flouts convention to suggest that teenage delinquency can happen in any neighborhood to any family.
Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “wretchingly powerful, despite some dated elements” and goes on to praise director Ray, screenwriter Stern, and the cast. An essay by the late film critic Jay Carr analyzes the film’s themes.
But Does It Really?: The legacy of “Rebel” is two-fold: the definitive entry in the ’50s teen drama subgenre, and James Dean’s commanding central performance. The key to the film’s success is Nicholas Ray et al focusing on the teen characters, making them the dimensional, complex protagonists over their authoritative parents. “Rebel” may not be an untouchable essential, but, aided by a strong cast of rising talent and several iconic moments, continues to be a memorable classic.
Title Track: In 1946, Warner Bros. bought the screen rights to the 1944 book “Rebel Without a Cause: The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath” by Dr. Robert M. Lindner. Various adaptations were written, but all were abandonded, and the project was dropped. In 1954, Warner Bros. purchased Nicholas Ray’s treatment about teenage rebellion called “The Blind Run”. Irving Shulman’s script adaptation bared the title “Juvenile Story”, and Stewart Stern’s re-writes lifted “Rebel Without a Cause” from the unrelated Lindner book.
Seriously, Oscars?: Despite mixed reviews, “Rebel Without a Cause” was one of Warner Bros.’ biggest hits of the year. The film, however, failed to win any of its three Oscar nominations: Supporting nods for Wood and Mineo, and Best Story for Nicholas Ray (Side Note: “Best Story” is a now retired category specifically for a movie’s treatment, not its screenplay, hence Ray’s nomination as opposed to Stern). The only reason James Dean wasn’t nominated was because he was already up for Best Actor for “East of Eden” (sadly, Dean is the category’s first posthumous nominee).
- “Rebel Without a Cause” was originally slated to be a black and white B-movie with a small budget. Production began in March 1955, the same month “East of Eden” was released. Recognizing Dean’s rising star (and the popularity of teen movies), Jack Warner bumped up “Rebel” to an A-movie in Technicolor and CinemaScope.
- This classic opens with a screen legend in the making…playing with a cymbal monkey? Have I never seen this movie from the beginning?
- Natalie Wood had been a child actor for 12 years before successfully making the transition to young ingenue thanks to this movie. Judy’s promiscuity was all but eliminated from the script, but Wood still gets in some emotional shading when she can.
- “You’re tearing me apart!” A moment that big so early in a movie could come across as over the top, but Dean pulls it off.
- Shoutout to classic Hollywood cinematographer Ernest Haller. An Oscar winner for “Gone with the Wind“, Haller makes excellent use of the CinemaScope widescreen camera. Multiple characters comfortably fill the screen, and there’s plenty of storytelling packed into each shot.
- Primarily known then as the voice of Mr. Magoo, Jim Backus shines in easily his best live-action performance. Equally impressive is Ann Doran as Jim’s mom, domineering but never cartoonish.
- Although the Production Code made the filmmakers tone down Plato’s obvious homosexuality, there are still a few references hidden in the film. Exhibit A: the photo of Alan Ladd in Plato’s locker.
- Wow, what a nihilistic planetarium show. Life goes on, man’s problems don’t matter, go forth young graduates!
- Buzz’s friend Goon is played by a young Dennis Hopper! Unfortunately Hopper is given nothing to do: Goon and the other teen characters were de-emphasized in favor of James Dean.
- The knife fight at the Observatory confirms my theory that field trip chaperones are useless.
- To fully understand his leading man, Nicholas Ray allowed Dean free-reign to improvise his dialogue. This is most evident in Jim’s conversation with Dad before the chicken run. Dean does a great job of conveying the inarticulate confusion of a teenager, and Backus follows wherever Dean is going.
- No one before or after James Dean has looked that cool in a windbreaker. This film must have done for windbreakers what Clark Gable didn’t do for t-shirts.
- Wow, this chicken run is intense. Truly some of Nick Park’s darkest work.
- If the abandoned mansion Jim, Judy and Plato hang out in looks familiar, it’s J. Paul Getty’s “Phantom House”, a.k.a. Norma Desmond’s mansion from “Sunset Boulevard“. Sadly, the house was completely demolished just two years later.
- While impersonating Jim’s dad, James Dean sneaks in a surprisingly spot-on Mr. Magoo voice. I learned it from you, dad!
- Shoutout to Sal Mineo, who is just perfect as a lost soul yearning to connect. Bonus shoutout to the film for not using Mineo’s Italian ethnicity to define the character.
- Despite some truly exciting action scenes, the film’s finale loses momentum. This is not helped by the film’s unsympathetic portrayal of the police. It’s true to the rest of the film’s view of adults, but nowadays we really don’t need the reminder.
- After production wrapped on “Rebel Without a Cause”, James Dean headed off to Texas to film “Giant“. Upon his return to California, Dean resumed his fascination with auto racing, and was en route to a race in Salinas when he was killed in a car accident on September 30th 1955. He was 24. “Rebel” was released in theaters less than a month later on October 26th.
- “Rebel” was a hit, and continued the ’50s trend of movies targeted towards/dealing with the teen market. Some, like “Blackboard Jungle“, tackled real life issues, but as the decade went on, the genre started getting more fanciful (see “Gidget” and “I Was a Teenage Werewolf”).
- Griffith Observatory got a major tourism boost thanks to “Rebel”, becoming a historical landmark in 1976. A bust of James Dean can be viewed on the Observatory’s lawn.
- “Rebel Without a Cause” is definitely one of those movies where people know the title more than the actual movie. A typical allusion to the movie focuses on the title and Dean’s iconic wardrobe rather than any specific scene.
- One “Rebel” moment that does get referenced: Jim’s line “You’re tearing me apart!” is uttered by James Dean uber-fan Tommy Wiseau in “The Room”, quite possibly the worst movie ever made.
Bonus Clip: In 1947, Warner Bros. used a draft from one of the unproduced versions of “Rebel” in a screen test for 23-year-old stage actor Marlon Brando. Warner Bros. passed on Brando, who went back to New York to do some new Tennessee Williams play…