This is the first in what will hopefully be an ongoing classic film review segment I’m writing in NZ vintage lifestyle magazine Glory Days. It’s a really cool mag, so be sure to check it out here.
The quintessential teen drama, Rebel Without a Cause works from a simple premise: Jim Stark (James Dean) is the new kid at Dawson High, a situation he is apparently familiar with, doing his best to ingratiate himself with his peers. After unwittingly drawing the ire of a gang of bullies, he earns the loyalty of troubled loner Plato (Sal Mineo) and piques the curiosity of Judy (Natalie Wood), girlfriend of the thuggish Buzz (Corey Allen).
Following a tragic accident during a test of manhood, Jim’s world is thrown into chaos as the guidance he desperately needs from his father (Jim Backus) is stonewalled by his caustic-tongued mother (Ann Doran), leading to a showdown with police, parents, and the menacing bullies.
Perhaps the secret to the enduring nature of Nicholas Ray’s film is its even-handed treatment of the balance between the angst-ridden teens and the confused adults. There’s such freshness to the ‘parents just don’t understand’ theme, as Jim begs his father for help only to have his problems brushed off as insignificant.
The immediacy and drama of youth will be familiar to anyone who remembers their teenage years. The perfect juxtaposition of playing out Jim’s squabbles with his classmates amidst the vastness of the universe at the observatory is a stroke of genius, and Ray’s camera flourishes and occasional Escher-like framing parallel Jim’s inner turmoil to wonderful effect.
On the other side of the generation gap, Ray deftly mirrors Jim’s confusion with a warped adult view of the teenagers. Jim, Plato and Judy are metaphors for troubled youth, introduced as a drunk with no respect for authority, a violent misfit with a penchant for shooting dogs, and a promiscuous girl who it’s implied is prostituting herself to gain the attention of her father (William Hooper) respectively.
It’s really no wonder Judy has daddy issues, for the film as a whole is heavily focused on fathers. The problems of the three central teens stem from strained relationships with their dads, and while the absurd level of Mr Stark’s figurative castration at the hands of his wife comes across as a little sexist today, the effect is powerful. Jim needs a strong figure to see him through the trials of adolescence, not the wishy-washy punching bag who spends the most important conversation of Jim’s entire struggle clad in a lacy apron. The desire for strong parents plays a key part in the young trio’s escape to the abandoned mansion at the conclusion, as they unshackle themselves from their ineffectual parents and role-play their own ideas about adulthood.
Rebel Without a Cause is a stunning example of Classical Hollywood at its best, as every element of the film has deep meaning. Dean’s iconic status was cemented with his fabulous performance of Jim Stark, and the tragedy which was to come would only crystallize his place as the ultimate screen teen.