Rebel Without A Cause

Rebel Without A Cause may seem a bit dated to the sometimes jaded youthful audiences of today but the emotional impact of this film is timeless

Actor James Dean only made three major movies before his life was tragically cut short at 24 in an auto accident. Rebel without a Cause was the middle of these films and perhaps the best. Rebel Without A Cause was hailed by the American Film Institute, as one of the best 100 films of all times and it deserves such accolades.

Rebel Without A Cause may seem a bit dated to the sometimes jaded youthful audiences of today but the emotional impact of this film is timeless. The struggle of coming to age, the tension of being a teenager or the conflict between parents as their child grow to adulthood remain as powerful today as they were in the fifties. Sure, it was supposed to be a simpler time back then but the pains of the teen years are never easy, especially from the teenager’s point of view.

Rebel Without A Cause does show a different era. One where boys wore ties and jackets to high school. Where girls wore calf length flair shirts to school and poodle skirts to sock hops. Still, it is a real and meaningful today as it was then. The timeless struggle of a teenager to become an adult. How that change is reflected not only in our they deal with their peers but also how they have to reevaluate their parents and other adults. In some ways the adults in Rebel Without A Cause are rather two-dimensional. Perhaps this reflects how teenagers see adults. The teens in Rebel Without A Cause (and they are rather old looking teens), are far more complex in their emotional makeup.

James Dean plays Jim, confused young man moved from town to town because of the trouble he seems to always find himself in. Judy, played by Natalie Wood in her first non-child role is also searching for acceptance. Then there is Plato, Sal Mineo, a dark isolated young boy that is seeking not merely acceptance but someone to look up to. The three main characters are introduced to us in a very clever manner, in a police station. Jim is found drunk and disorderly, Judy, run away from home and Plato had just shot a litter of puppies. (Thankfully not seen) It is also here that we see the first of the adult characters. The kindly and understanding police detective well played by Ed Platt (the Chief in Get Smart). He is the only sympathetic adult in Rebel Without A Cause. He reaches out to Jim and calms him down. He also tries his best to help Judy. Jim’s parents are a real piece of work. His father (Jim Backus) is a wimp, ineffectual and completely overshadowed by his domineering wife. When we first see them they are dressed to the nine (an expression from back then, I thought I’d keep this review in the vernacular of the times!). They look rich but when we see them at home they are just middle class. To them appearance is everything. Jim is searching for truth in life and they can present only the façade they feel is expected. Jim’s father is so emasculated that in one scene he is shown wearing a frilly apron, on his knees cleaning up a dropped tray of food he was bringing to his wife. He is afraid she will see the mess and take it out on him. Jim confides in his father hoping for some direction but only receives vague platitudes. Jim is so afraid of being a ‘chicken’ like his father that the very mention of the word in application to himself drives him wild. A little piece of movie history here, Robert Zemeckis pays tribute to this film with his Back to the Future series. Marty is also enraged whenever he is called chicken. Judy’s parents are no better. She kisses her father one morning and is slapped in the face and admonished by her father. Where Jim is seeking direction Judy seeks affection. Plato comes to see Jim first as a hero figure and then later in the movie as a surrogate father figure. His dependency on Jim is overwhelming to him.

The pivotal scene in Rebel Without A Cause is the ‘chickie’ run. Where the head of the teens Judy initially hangs out with and Jim drive stolen cars to the brink of a cliff. The first one to jump from the car is a chicken. Jim sees this as a pint of honor that he cannot refuse. Just prior to the race Buzz and Jim become friends, putting a recent switchblade fight behind them. Still, honor must be served and the race is on. Buzz fails to jump since his leather jacket becomes caught on the door handle and he dies. The gang blames Jim for this and goes after him. Judy softens her attitude towards Jim and begins to fall for him. What follows must be seen since it encompasses some of the best American cinema has to offer. The acting talent here is perhaps the finest you will ever see.

The director, Nicholas Ray, who also did the Biblical classic, King of Kings, shows himself to be an artist of the cinema. Almost every set up or scene is framed to perfection. His use of light and shadow, color and contrasts is superb. Originally, Rebel Without A Cause was to be done in black and white but the studio felt that this would not be an effective use of CinemaScope the audience certainly benefits from their decision to go with color.

Rebel Without A Cause should never be seen in Pan and Scan. So much would be lost. There is such a release in VHS but thankfully the DVD restores the original vision of the director. Ray also provides a lot of realism. During the switchblade fight between Buzz and Jim, real blades were used. To protect the actors, chain mail was hidden under their shirts. Ray also brings out a lot in the way of recurring themes. The use of animals in the images, reaction shots seen only in the widescreen that depicts visually the isolation and separation the characters feel. The quick cuts between shots that quickens the pace of the movie and conveys the teenager’s feeling of everything being rushed and happening far too fast.

The Rebel Without A Cause DVD itself is one of the best re-mastering jobs I have ever seen. The video was obviously taken from a master copy. The colors are bright and vivid. The shadows are clean and effective. The widescreen view shows all the action and projects the true depth of this classic film. The audio was also done with great care. The original soundtrack was stereo but this re-mix is Dolby 5.1. Many re-mixes suffer in the translation but this one does not. Watching on my home theater I felt as if I was transported back in time to the grand old cinemas I remember from my childhood. The sub woofer punctuates the sound but was not over done. The rear speakers add to the ambiance. The front speakers carry the soundtrack while the center speaker is used as intended for the dialogue. This is a refreshing change from the hit song drive sound tracks of modern movies. Rebel Without A Cause is more like a modern independent movie relying on talent not special effects. There are also many added features. Interviews with Dean, Woods and Backus, a making of featurette and trailers from all three of James Dean’s classics, Rebel, Giant and East of Eden. The last two are presented in widescreen. If you love and appreciate movies this is a necessary part of your collection.

Review by Doug MacLean of

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