Director: Nicholas Ray
From the career of one reluctantly iconic, short-lived actor to another. Rebel Without A Cause is without question the film that James Dean is most remembered for. The two are forever in-twinned together – you say Rebel Without A Cause and people invariably say James Dean. Another splendid actor who not only had a tragically short life but one which ended at the real beginning of a promising career, with a mere three films under his belt. As with the films of River Phoenix there is a pervasive melancholy attached to Rebel in part because of the subject matter and highlighted by his untimely demise. “One reason why he and Dean were made for each other; it wasn’t just the actor’s style but his whole body that gave dramatic life to the turmoil within. Seeing Dean’s Jim is witnessing a character being born, growing from moment to moment before our eyes. That, of course, is fitting for Rebel‘s subject matter, but it also complements Ray’s direction in terms of how its acute physicality expresses the tormented vitality within.” (314, Geoff Andrew, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) Dean is roguishly handsome and suitably troubled as the protagonist Jim Stark. It’s not hard to see how he become the superstar he was and remains to be today. Jim is struggling with universal themes of trying to find out who he is and coming to the realization that parents are fallible human beings with their own problems. It’s themes like this that keep a classic like Rebel Without A Cause relevant to today’s audience.
“Rebel remains by far the best 1950s film dealing with the then-new phenomenon of teenage delinquency.” (314) Right from the off we know that the characters in the film are going to be delinquents of some sort having had our initial introduction to the main trio at the police station, with all three there for some sort of misdemeanor. The trio of Jim, Judy and Plato become this odd dysfunctional family with Jim and Judy taking on bizarre parental roles in Plato’s mind. Plato seems much more invested in their friendship than Jim does; he is much more intense in his feelings. Jim in particular becomes a strange sort of father figure to Plato, with the latter even calling Jim his father at times. Plato’s description of Jim, “You have to get to know him. He doesn’t say much. But when he does, you know he means it. He’s sincere” closely resembles that of James Dean.
“The often luridly expressionist hues and Ray’s typically fraught CinemaScope compositions evoke the feverish nature of adolescent experience.” (314) The colours are so vivid and seem all the more so when a large number of the images from the film are so often seen in black and white. It’s always a bit of a shock when I start watching Rebel because I forget that it was actually filmed in colour. Ray uses really interesting compositions mixing up the conventional shots in the way he places the actors. It gives the film and interesting visual dynamic. The chickee run is exhilarating with fatal consequences that end up certain events in motion. There is added tension to the race due to the real life demise of the star at the hand of a horrific car crash.
“Ray understands how, especially when young, we view our lives as drama. His immaculate sense of colour, composition, cutting, lighting and performance enhances the importance of the action.” (314) Plato becomes the third wheel to Jim and Judy’s burgeoning relationship and it’s one that develops remarkably quickly much like many relationships when you’re a teenager. Jim really understands Plato – he says exactly what Plato needs to hear in order to defuse the volatile situation; he turns out to be a fairly skilled negotiator even if the end turned out rather worse than anyone intended. The costumes are wonderful but then I have a nostalgic love for all 1950s fashion. In some ways Ray is subtly questioning, or mocking depending on how you chose to read the scene, the masculinity of Jim’s father by having him wearing an apron over his business suit while having a conversation with Jim over what it takes to be a man. Ray creates a visual representation of how Jim initially sees his father as being a weak figure in his life, unwilling or unable to stand up for his own son. Dean gives such an adult performance that you forget Jim is only actually 16. There isn’t a happy ending per se but something good comes out of tragedy of Plato’s death – Jim reconnects with is father. They end the film with a much better understanding of each other and have moved onto a new stage in their relationship as parent and child.