Rebel Without a Cause, the second of the three films James Dean starred in before his untimely death, is the movie that made him an instant legend. Released just 27 days after his fatal car crash, the film froze him in time and later took on even more legendary proportions when his co-stars, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo, also died premature deaths. (Amazingly enough, Dennis Hopper, who appeared in two Dean movies, is still alive.)
Nicholas Ray’s study of the epidemic of juvenile delinquency that terrified post-war parents in the ‘50s is still compelling today even if the delinquency depicted – leather jackets, switchblades, drag racing – seems positively quaint by today’s shoot-up-the-school-with-an-Uzi standards. Dean takes the role of Jim Trask and runs with it, chewing up the scenery when the script demands it and then throttling back into profound stillness in his moodier moments.
Jim is a kid with problems who staggers into the movie drunk. His parents (Jim Backus and Ann Doran) and grandmother (Virginia Brissac) have arrived at the police station to take him home from the drunk tank, and the chief of police (Edward Platt, whom you’ll recognize as the Chief from Get Smart) immediately sees the problem: There’s virtually no communication between Jim, his ubershrew of a mother, and his profoundly emasculated father. As his parents bicker, Jim lets loose with his famous shriek: ‘You’re tearing me apart!!!’
Jim is the new kid in town, and it appears that the Starks left their previous home because Jim was causing trouble there, too. Can he fit in at his new high school? What he’d most like to do is get to know Judy (Wood) better. A beautiful girl who runs with the cool clique, Judy brushes shy Jim off at first, preferring to hang with Buzz (Corey Allen), the leader of the gang. Eventually, though, she starts to point her cashmere-straining torpedo-shaped breasts in Jim’s direction, and that will spell trouble for sure.
Jim’s other new friendship is with the mysterious Plato, a fey loner who buzzes around on an Italian scooter and suffers the insults of the cool kids. When Jim comes to his aid, Plato falls head over heels in love with him. The movie treads very very carefully with this plot line, but Ray’s willingness to introduce even the tiniest suggestion of gay love is astonishing and fascinating to see in a teen-oriented movie that dates back to Eisenhower’s first term. Mineo is perfect; he says it all with his eyes.
The battles between Jim and Buzz begin, first with a dramatic knife fight on the balcony of the Griffith Park Observatory and later with an exciting drag race on the cliffs that ends in disaster. Jim’s problems go from bad to worse, and he finds comfort only in Judy’s arms, with Plato usually standing just a few feet away and watching. In fact, when the threesome explores an abandoned mansion and begins to ‘play house,’ it’s clear that what Jim is really seeking is a family, any family other than his own damaged one.
Rebel really belongs entirely to Dean and his iconic red windbreaker. Everyone else revolves around him and fades in the bright light of his on-screen charisma. His fights with his father are unforgettable, and while watching them (along with similar scenes in East of Eden), it’s interesting to recall that Dean was abandoned by his own father and is obviously using his Method training to put those bottled-up emotions to good use. It’s a shame he only got one more chance (in the soapy Giant) to show his stuff.
Disc 2 of the Warner Home Video special edition DVD includes a 50th anniversary documentary: Rebel Without a Cause: Defiant Innocents; a Dean documentary; additional scenes without sound; screen and wardrobe tests; and Dean’s famously ironic ‘Drive Safely’ public service TV spot.
Members only, man!