Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

“You, say one thing, he says another, and everybody changes back again!”

Cast: James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo

James Dean. Even if you aren’t fully aware of his work, you will recognise his name. It’s still being bounced around in today’s society just showing the true magnitude of his acting talents, of which was only showcased in 3 films.

Rebel Without a Cause

At just 24, Dean was tragically killed in a car accident, and this early death has immortalised him in the same way it did with people like Marilyn Monroe, as an icon.

Rebel Without a Cause, on the surface, is a film about the many adolescent problems that teenagers face. It’s set in suburban, middle class America, in a time of post war. To look from a different point of view through, a web of conflicts involving relationships, teenage delinquency, family and sex is revealed giving the film an intriguing depth.

As the film opens we are introduced to Jim Stark (Dean); clearly intoxicated by alcohol and lying face down in an L.A gutter, he is arrested for public drunkenness. When his parents come to collect him from the police station we are presented with the conflicts that Jim’s faces in his home life. His parents are always arguing about the right way to raise Jim, with his father (Jim Backus) defending his actions but his mother (Ann Doran) always winning the fight.

He is saddened by the lack of support from both of his parents, and especially angered by the absence of his father’s moral strength and manliness. Later in the film Jim’s father is seen wearing an apron, this visual emasculation leaves Jim reeling in anger as his mother is obviously becoming more domineering, while his father doesn’t fight for his ‘rightful’ place as head of the household. This leaves Jim repeatedly asking the question, “What do you do, when you have to be a man?”

At the police station Jim meets Judy (Natalie Wood) and John ‘Plato’ Crawford (Sal Mineo), who in a mere 24 hours he befriends. Jim is able to relate to both of them, being isolated is a common feeling amongst the three, and each have issues with their fathers.

When shown a glimpse into Judy’s home life, it’s obvious that her house is full of sexual malaise. Her father is struggling to deal with the grown-up image she embraces, suggesting she’s nothing more than a tramp. The strained relationship is heightened in that he refrains to show her any loving attention, and she doesn’t know why. Noticing that she is developing into a young woman, he seems worried about his sexual feelings toward her, and believes they can’t have the same sort of loving relationship as they did when she was a young girl.

“What’s the matter with you? You’re getting too old for that kind of stuff. Girls your age don’t do things like that.” He says when she waits for a goodnight kiss.

Judy replies: “Girls don’t love their father? Since when? Since I got to be 16?”

Plato’s father is apparently dead, though the story of how he died changes each time he tells it, suggesting he just ran away when he was born. Preferring to be called by his nickname, he is a very lonely kid, being raised in a parentless house by a black maid. Before he met Jim he had no friends, and although his loosely veiled homosexuality toward Jim isn’t outright declared, it’s certainly hinted at. Obviously 1950s America was not ready for this, so it seems his suggestive nature was in place for when the world grew to be more accepting, but again that is something the viewer would have to decide. Nicholas Ray, who directed the film, has neither confirmed or denied the speculation.

The group make an odd threesome, and although it’s made clear that Plato looks to Jim and Judy as the parents he never had, watching the film you can’t help but think that he merely sees Judy as a distraction to Jim’s and his relationship.

Some argue the film is dated and because of this teenagers can’t relate to the characters. This can’t be true though. The fact that the three main characters share the troubles that every teenager has ever faced makes the film timeless. Ask any teenager today if they have ever felt lonely, isolated or had a desire to fit in with the crowd and the answer will be yes. In this respect the film is worth just as much as it did when it hit theatres 56 years ago, if not more, now that values in society have changed.

Dean really showcases his acting talents in his portrayal of Jim. He acts as an icon for both the straight and gay community. He doesn’t bash Plato for some of the loving gestures he shows toward him, yet embraces the feelings and shows them back. He balances all sorts of emotions, not afraid to embrace who he really is. That’s what allows him to connect so freely with the audience. Throughout the movie we see him fight, cry, shout and love. He embodies the distresses of being a teenager, but shows how you shouldn’t have to conform to any sort of ideal.

Rebel Without a Cause isn’t about some uprising against a political system or belief, hence the ‘without a cause’. It’s just the simple fight and struggle that everyone faces in life, especially when growing up. Whether it be resistance toward a desired image, certain relationship or even within the family home, most teenagers rebel against some sort of system that is put in place, nothing more for the simple reason than being different.

To watch this film, it’s evident that Dean paved the way for the archetypal teenager through his character, Jim, who we see so often in film today. With his white t-shirt, red leather jacket, packet of cigarettes and blue denim jeans, Jim has so far, stumbled through life with no real sense of belonging. No one seems to understand him, or empathise with his problems in life – except everyone who has ever been a teenager.

Star rating:   8.5/10

Director Nicholas Ray.

Running time 111 minutes.

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