James Dean’s character in “Rebel Without a Cause” is desperately searching for a type of masculinity he can actually relate to. What’s ironic about the film is that James Dean himself, along with Marlon Brando, expressed a new idea of masculinity in Hollywood actors.
And suddenly after Dean’s tragic death, “Rebel Without a Cause” spoke to America’s teenagers in a way Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne were no longer reaching them.
Nicholas Ray’s film tells the story of a teenager struggling to fit in at a new school and being forced to prove himself at every turn. We meet Jim Stark (Dean) as little more than a kid at play, awkwardly and drunkenly playing with a monkey wind up toy until he’s hauled into the police office.
His high-pitched voice and peculiar mannerisms seem to channel a different kind of masculinity from the get go, and he attracts the attention of two students, the orphan Plato (Sal Mineo) and the popular Judy (Natalie Wood), who is trying to feel closer to her distant father as she blossoms into womanhood. All of them confused by the emotions they’re feeling and the rigid catering and rules of their parents, their actions hinge on reckless but their reasons are hopelessly vague.
“Gotta do something,” Jim’s rival Buzz says to him before their Chicken Run to prove who’s the bigger man. The meaningless social rules of masculinity have turned teenagers against one another and forced them all into becoming rebels.
“Rebel Without a Cause” plays on these paradoxes to the point that the ending outcome comes across as bitter and pointless, even after Jim, Judy and Plato have all briefly lived a touching nuclear family fantasy that gives them a taste of the masculinity they’ve been missing.
The film remains very attentive to the many different angles at which a human being can feel diminished. Almost always is Jim framed at a high angle over his father, looking down at him at how little masculinity he seems to represent.
One of the film’s most powerful scenes takes place on a stairwell with Jim sandwiched between his parents in a canted angle shot. The cinematic technique is obvious, but the pathos provided by Dean’s performance is immense.
It also squanders the characters during a trip to a planetarium. The stars tower over the kids as an old man recites the truth that Earth is a miniscule part of a universe that won’t notice when we’re gone. With education like this, no wonder the kids feel conflicted and unimportant.
Dean only starred in three films in his career, and “Rebel Without a Cause,” his second to be released after Elia Kazan’s “East of Eden,” was also his first posthumous role. “Rebel” became a cult film as the legend of Dean began to blossom, and it wasn’t long before every kid on the block wanted one of Jim Stark’s bright red jackets.
But the film was even loosely intended to be a cult, exploitation film for teens in the same spirit of Brando’s “The Wild One.” The massive CinemaScope aspect ratio and vibrant colors is more suited for a lush Western than a teen drama, but the film even tacks on a couple of extended action set pieces, including a knife fight, a drag race and a shootout, that do little more than make use of the soon outdated technology. Today, some of these sequences, along with a few other light-hearted moments in between, are notoriously dated.
Dean’s mannerisms and presence as a fashion icon cemented him as a pivotal male figure in the early ‘50s, paving the way for the rise of Brando and Method Acting, the French New Wave, Elvis and the abandonment of Old Hollywood altogether. The kids watching “Rebel Without a Cause” in the ‘50s would be the young adults in the ‘60s making counter culture fare like “The Graduate,” and although the two films are drastically different, you can almost see the natural progression from Jim Stark to Benjamin Braddock.
Young people watching “Rebel Without a Cause” may giggle more than they feel the movie resonating with them on a personal level, but this remains a touching and influential American film.