|Rebel Without a Cause|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 21 September 1999|
By the time Rebel Without a Cause was in release, James Dean was dead, killed in an automobile accident (not his fault, despite Hollywood legends to the contrary) on September 9, 1955 -- but his legend was just beginning. Even today, 45 years after his death, his star burns as intensely as ever; with only three leading roles (this, East of Eden and Giant), Dean is still one of the most inspiring actors ever, to thousands, maybe millions, of alienated teenagers as well as to other actors.
Watching Rebel Without a Cause, it's easy to understand this undying adulation: his performance is as intense, realistic and fascinating as ever. The movie itself has dated in some regards, but Dean's performance is literally timeless -- and yet it's only a very good, not a great, performance. He was still learning as an actor, and he still seems a little green around the edges.
He plays Jim Stark, a teenager newly arrived in a California city (never named, but it's clearly Los Angeles); he and his parents (Jim Backus, Ann Doran) have moved several times because of Jim's rebelliousness. Or so we're told at the beginning; by the end of the film, we realize it's really more because his mother is too afraid to face the social consequences of having a son who's had some minor brushes with the law, and because his father is too spineless, henpecked by both his wife and her genuinely unpleasant mother, to plant his feet and take a stand.
Jim isn't really dangerous; he's troubled, disturbed by his father's spinelessness (overdramatized a bit by having Backus wear an apron in one scene), and the general teenage feeling that life is meaningless and frightening. At the Griffith Park Planetarium, in and around which most of the key scenes take place (there's now a bust of Dean at the Planetarium), a lecturer comments on the death of the universe. "Man existing," he says, "seems an episode of little consequence," unknowingly making a deep impression on his teenaged audience, most of whom already suspected that.
The story of Rebel takes place in 48 hours, but it's a busy time for Jim: he meets neighbor Judy (Natalie Wood), who's going with leather-jacketed Buzz (Corey Allen) and hangs out with Buzz's gang. Jim also meets Plato (Sal Mineo), whose father lives elsewhere; Plato is small, delicate and child-like; he's drawn to Jim both as a father figure and maybe homosexually, though this is very discreet -- it is the 1950s, after all. Jim is attracted to Judy, and also would like to be considered one of the guys by Buzz and his bunch.
But his attempt at an ice-breaking joke backfires, and Buzz takes him on in a fairly tame knife fight below the Planetarium. (Buzz makes the mistake of calling Jim "chicken" -- which is what led to Jim's problems in his previous town.) This ends up in the famous "chickie run" on a bluff overlooking the Pacific, where Corey Allen gets the film's best line. "Why do we do this?" Jim asks him privately. "You gotta do something," Buzz replies.
Rebel Without a Cause established the reputation of Nicholas Ray, who directed the film, and who was nominated for an Oscar for his original screen story. (Stewart Stern wrote the final script.) His direction is largely uncluttered and direct, though he does use "Dutch angles" in the confrontation scene between Jim and his parents. Ray allowed the actors to develop their own characterizations, and this pays off with scenes of surprising warmth, as when Judy, Jim and Plato play "family" in a deserted mansion. This ties in very well with the underlying theme: what does it take to be a man? Rebel though he is, Jim accepts responsibilties and forms ties in a more mature way than his father ever has.
The entire cast is very good, including Jim Backus in a rare dramatic role -- though this doesn't prevent Dean from doing an impression of Backus' "Mr. Magoo" voice in one scene. In smaller roles, you can spot both Dennis Hopper and Nick Adams, who became friends of Dean's, and who were greatly influenced by him.
But there was only one James Dean; his acting style was similar to that of Marlon Brando and Paul Newman, who were just a couple of years older, and who also came out of the Actors Studio in New York. But Dean was also different from them; his caged-animal intensity, moments of tenderness (the scene in which he and Wood exchange vows of love is deeply moving), his sense of humor and his ability to own the screen set him apart from other actors of the '50s. With just three movies, he established himself not just as a star, but a screen legend.
The extra features on this DVD are especially impressive. Rebel Without a Cause began production in black and white CinemaScope, but when the dailies promised an unusually good movie, studio head Jack Warner ordered the film shut down and began again in color. In almost a miracle of preservation, someone hung onto some of the black and white footage, and it's included here. There is an odd screen test in which various actors step into a shot with Dean and Allen to judge how they all look together, and to determine their relative heights; Dean is bashful, quietly funny and charming in this footage. Gig Young hosted a behind-the-scenes show about Warner Bros. movies; one of those covered was Rebel, and in addition to partly-authentic, partly-bogus "location" footage, there are brief interviews with Wood, Backus and Dean -- who, ironically, warns against unsafe driving.
The film itself looks terrific in this presentation, with Leonard Rosenman's moody, dramatic score especially effective on high-quality home audio equipment.
(Extraneous footnote: ever hear of The Heavenly Kid? That 1985 movie tried to be about Buzz after he gets killed going off the cliff....)