I chose this film because for some reason I had never seen any James Dean film. It seems that some of Hollywood’s legends have escaped me, as I had just seen Marilyn Monroe’s and Bette Davis’ films for the first time recently. It’s also my first time seeing Natalie Wood, though I have seen her previously in various clips of West Side Story. Strange that both leads died tragically and prematurely, in fact, Wood’s drowning death is still unsolved to this day. Per IMDb, two other cast members also died under tragic circumstances: Sal Mineo was stabbed to death whilst Edward Platt committed suicide.
This film was nominated for 3 Oscars (including 2 acting nods for Wood and Mineo) and ranked #59 amongst 100 Greatest Films by AFI in 1998. Even before seeing the film, I’ve seen what Dean looked like in his iconic white t-shirt and red leather jacket. I wonder though if he had become such an influential cultural icon if he hadn’t died at the peak of his career at the young age of 24.
The one thing I noticed right away as the film opens with Dean’s character Jim Stark lying drunk on the street is that he’s way too mature to play a high school teenager. Sure enough, I learned later that he’s already 24 when he got the role. Yet somehow Dean’s able to capture that brooding teenage angst that becomes his signature performance. No doubt even today’s young male actors wants to imitate Dean’s style and swagger that one either has or doesn’t. But Jim’s not smug nor cocky, there’s actually a layer of vulnerability about Jim and all that malaise stems from a deeper longing that’s left unfulfilled.
This films isn’t just a commentary on the foibles of youth but I think it has a good message for parents, especially parents of teens who desperately need guidance as they navigate the complexities of their young lives.
“What do you do when you have to be a man?”
– Jim repeatedly asks his father
Jim’s parents are in constant fights that often ends with his mom winning the argument. In fact, it’s shown time and again that his dad just can’t stand up to his domineering wife. Early in the film, one of the cops (played by Edward Platt) actually sympathized with Jimmy whilst he was booked at the police station. For a while I thought he’d be a good mentor for him but then he sort of disappeared for most of the film.
There’s an interesting relationship between the school bully Buzz Gunderson (Corey Allen) and Jim who’s his target. The switchblade fight following Buzz slashing Jim’s car’s tire is wonderfully-filmed and packed with tension. I read that the actors wore chain mail under their shirt as they used real blades during that scene. What’s interesting is that for being called a *rebel*, Jim is actually a really nice guy who wants to do the right thing. Even when Buzz called him ‘chicken,’ something that really aggravated him, he’s still able to control himself instead of going completely berserk as I’d imagine a lot of teens would do under the circumstances.
[Spoiler alert – in case some of you still haven’t seen this one]
Now, what does baffle me is the bit involving the tragic car accident that killed Buzz. His jacket sleeve got caught in the car door handle which prevents him from jumping out of the car before it goes over a cliff, but wouldn’t you think that he can still hit brakes as soon as he realizes he can’t open the door? I don’t know maybe I’m missing some crucial piece of info here. Were the stolen cars been rigged so that the brakes don’t work??
[End of Spoiler]
In any case, that’s a small quibble in an otherwise intriguing drama. I have to admit though, if it weren’t for Dean’s performance, I don’t know if the film had been as interesting. He’s definitely the best thing of the film even though I’m not as captivated by him the way I was with other Golden Age actors, especially Gregory Peck. I do get his appeal however, there’s something so beguiling about that devil-may-care attitude and those chiseled cheekbones & piercing eyes are certainly matinee-idols material.
Natalie Wood on the other hand, seems miscast here as the supposedly wild teenage girl Judy. I read that director Nicholas Ray initially didn’t feel right about casting her either. Plus some of the scenes of her with her dad comes across as creepy and bizarre to me, I’m really not sure what that’s about. I wonder if someone feistier like Elizabeth Taylor, Dean’s co-star in Giant, might’ve been a better fit. Sal Mineo (who looked a lot like Ralph Macchio) is quite good as John aka Plato, a forlorn young boy from a privileged family who idolizes Jim. Plato’s looking for a father figure and somehow he finds that in Jim who obviously is lacking an adequate parental figure himself. Right from the start, there’s a strange parallel between the two as Plato was also arrested the same night as Jim. Given the strict Hays Code at the time, the homosexuality factor is never mentioned, but it’s glaringly obvious that Plato has a thing for Jim. Two other performers worth mentioning here is Jim Backus who played a key role as Dean’s father and there’s a very young, baby-faced Dennis Hopper in a small role as one of Buzz’s inner circle.
The third act is both tender and intense. Knowing that they’re hunted by Buzz’s friends, Jimmy and Judy’s romance blossomed as they hide out in an abandoned mansion. There’s an odd threesome going on between Jim, Judy and Plato as they sort of acting out a fantasy of being a family, with Jim & Judy as the parents and Plato as the child. I really had no idea what’s going to happen in the finale, a lot of scenarios are playing in my head as to what’ll become of Jim. I’m not going to spoil it for you but I found myself quite moved by Dean’s impassioned performance. If I wasn’t sure about Dean’s appeal initially, by the end of the film, I totally got what the fuss was about him and why he’s become such an icon. It’s really too bad he died so young and I can’t help thinking how eerie it is that the film that he’s best known for contains a scene of a fatal car accident.
Overall Rebel Without A Cause is a well-crafted piece with beautiful, evocative cinematography by Ernest Haller (who won an Oscar for his work in Gone With the Wind) that somehow helps convey the mood of a given scene. Even seeing this six decades after its release, there’s a timeless quality about it as the social themes are still relevant that today’s teens can relate to. Having seen this, now I’m curious to check out Dean’s other films, I think I will put Giant in my Blindspot list next year as I also need to see a Rock Hudson film.
Check out my previous 2014 Blind Spot reviews
So have you seen Rebel Without A Cause? I’d love to hear what you think!