November Blind Spot: Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

RebelWithoutACausePosterI 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.

RebelWithoutACause_Opening

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.

RebelWithoutACause_KnifeFight

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.

RebelWithoutACause_Romance

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.

RebelWithoutACause_Stills

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.

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Check out my previous 2014 Blind Spot reviews


So have you seen Rebel Without A Cause? I’d love to hear what you think!

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28 thoughts on “November Blind Spot: Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

  1. This is a film I hope to see soon though it’s one of these so-called classics like “Gone with the Wind” that I’m not rushing myself to see. Maybe in a future Blind Spot series.

    1. Hi Steven, I happen to love Gone With the Wind, but that could be because that was one of the first classic films I was introduced to. I like the characters, conflicts and melodrama, but I can see why some people aren’t fond of it. This one is quite good as well, even if it’s solely because of James Dean.

  2. Ted S.

    My English teacher always showed us this movie back when I was in 6th or 7th grade so I’ve actually seen it like 3 or 4 times. I liked it back then but i haven’t seen it in years so I don’t how I’ll feel about it now if I watch it as an adult. Funny enough after I saw the movie, Paula Abdul released a video of her popular song Rush Rush which is homage to this film. The very young keanu Reeves played the James Dean’s role in the video, you may have seen it but in case you have not, here it is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yqyIaNWP0T0

    1. Mwahahaha!!! Yes I totally know that Rush Rush is based on Dean’s role. That video is soooo cheesy but I remember noticing Keanu when it was released years ago and thought ‘who’s THAT?’ 😉 He looked nothing like James Dean which is just hilarious, but he’s also wearing a red shirt, ahah.

  3. PrairieGirl

    This is a film I don’t easily forget, even though I’ve only seen it once. It really pulls at your emotions. I wonder how teens felt back in 1955 after seeing this in the theater. A very thought-provoking film.

    1. Hi Becky! I think this film really appealed to teens back then, I think Dean was able to capture that teenage angst very well. Curious how today’s teens would react to it now.

  4. This was on my Blind Spot list too and I hated it. It was overly dramatic and poorly acted. I haven’t seen Dean’s other work, but I felt he was grossly overrated here.

    1. Hi Brittani, too bad you didn’t enjoy this. I feel that there are parts where there’s too much melodrama but that’s kind of how a lot of classic films were back in the day. I actually thought Dean’s good here and I actually felt for his character. I do wonder though if he hadn’t died so young, if the film & his persona would’ve been cemented into pop culture.

  5. Great review, Ruth! I have always liked this film–the character Plato is one that sticks in my mind and you raise interesting points regarding what’s hidden behind daughter/daddy relationship. I think there’s a lot of taboo inference going on in the film to supply enough motivation for teenage angst for everyone. I liked all the acting and cameos and the third act truly has me on the edge of my seat.

    1. Hey Cindy! I’m glad I finally saw this one. Dean’s appeal has eluded me, but after seeing this I could see why so many people, both men and women loved him. He’s got a certain swagger than men like to emulate, but also that sweet sensitivity that some other classic actors don’t have. I feel the same way about Gregory Peck in his scenes w/ his female co-stars, the way he looked at them make me melt 😉

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  7. Fine review Ruth. I would probably give this movie the same score. I’ve always liked it but it is never reached the pinnacle for me as it has other people. There is a lot I like about it though. Glad you were able to catch up with it.

    1. Hi Keith! I like it too, and understand its cult status but it’s not perfect. I’d probably give something like Casablanca (which surely you’d agree) and All About Eve a 5/5 but this one doesn’t quite reach that level but still a very good film. Dean is definitely the star here, it’s so tragic how he died in such a young age.

  8. Nice choice and I like your review, Ruth. One thing I noticed (apart from falling in love with James Dean) was that Dean didn’t really have any believable chemistry with Natalie Wood. That “love” scene just screamed ‘gay’ IMO.
    -Mette

    1. Hello Mette, lovely to see you stop by! Oh I’d agree w/ you about the lack of chemistry, esp. when they’re alone inside the mansion. It’s weird as Natalie Wood didn’t even look at him as she’s professing her love for him, ahah. If you mean the scene of the three of them together, there’s definitely gay connotations in regards to Plato being in love w/ Jim, that’s quite obvious. I do think Dean makes for a convincing romantic leading man though.

  9. jackdeth72

    Hi, Ruth:

    Excellent choice, photos and dissertation!

    A true classic that doesn’t quite fall into the “You’ve Gotta Start Somewhere” type of film. But the cast does exceptional work and delivers in ways few would have thought for an early outing. Especially the secondary Dennis Hopper, Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood.

    1. Hi Kevin! For some reason I don’t remember Dennis Hopper much here apart from the fact that it’s amusing to see his younger self as I’m so used to seeing him as an older man. I do think Mineo and of course Dean are very memorable. Now, did Mineo ever did anything as prominent as this one after this movie? I figure you would know 😀

      1. jackdeth72

        Hi, Ruth:

        Sal Mineo was something of an enigma. He has the looks, talents and the right friends (James Dean, Montgomery Clift, etc). And ‘Rebel’ seems to be his zenith. 😀

        Later, seeming to choke at times and found a more comfortable perch in television and occasional films (‘Giant’, ‘The Gene Krupa Story’ (Very good, low budget stuff!) and ‘Longest Day’).

        While Hopper found his calling in smaller roles. Until age and wisdom caught up with him.

  10. Wow I haven’t seen any of Dean’s films since the 80’s. Will have to give it a rewatch.

    I was looking something up on Wood and found out her birth name was Natalia Nikolaevna Zacharenko. No wonder she changed it.

  11. Nice review Ruth, glad you finally saw this one. It’s pretty good and it makes you think like you said, about James Dean and what type of career he could have had. He really was a force to be reckoned with, the whole time watching this, you can’t help but focus on him.

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  13. There’s that one line which always stays with me from this movie: You’re tearing me apart. It has been way too long since I seen this, so really can’t remember much of it.

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