Director Nicholas Ray’s 1955 drama Rebel Without a Cause is an iconic piece of cultural history, a film that crystallizes the moment after World War II when America began to come into its own and define its future, standing at the dawn of decades of economic and political turmoil, fitful but starkly transformative technological advancement, and cascading, ever-quickening cultural shifts. Rebel Without a Cause effortlessly captures its era’s undertow of rebellion and alienation, the twinned tides of an emerging generation gap and a nascent teenage identity, offering flickering premonitions of youth culture to come.
Director: Nicholas Ray
Producer: David Weisbart
Writers: Stewart Stern, Irving Shulman, Nicholas Ray
Cinematographer: Ernest Haller
Music: Abraham Laboriel, Bill Maxwell
Editor: William H. Ziegler
Cast: James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Jim Backus, Ann Doran, Corey Allen, Dennis Hopper
Genre: Drama / Romance
US Theatrical Release: October 27, 1955
US Distributor: Warner Brothers
The film opens with teenage Jim Stark being hauled into a police station, raucously drunk. There, he meets with a sympathetic officer and has a strained, uncomfortable confrontation with his disappointment family. But Jim isn’t exactly a bad boy—he’s a tortured soul, a loner, practically a geek. Jim fares little better with his peers—the next day, on the first day of school, he’s ostracized at first, and soon finds himself getting bullied into a knife fight and, eventually, a dangerous game of chicken that sends one of his tormenters over a cliff and to his death.
A guilty Jim tries to confide in his parents about what happened, but the conversation veers into an excruciating, increasingly hysterical psychodrama. Jim, feeling more misunderstood than ever, flees his home and seeks out the companionship of Plato, an adolescent ne’er-do-well who sees Jim as a mentor of sorts, and Judy, a new neighbor who Jim feels a certain bond with even though she’s been complicit in his social harassment. The trio bond while exploring an abandoned mansion, but before long both the bullies and the cops catch up with them, with tragic consequences.
James Dean is genuinely affecting in his legendary performance as Jim Stark (one of only three film performances in his much storied career), bringing a vital but enigmatic sense of personality to the emotionally wounded teenage outsider. It was only Dean’s second starring role, after his breakout turn in Elia Kazan’s John Steinbeck adaptation East of Eden, but he owns it as few actors could. In his hands, Jim is withdrawn but playful, tender but trapped, a lonely, torn-up soul searching for peace. Released less than a month after Dean’s death in a car accident, Rebel Without a Cause made him an icon.
Underneath its then-groundbreaking portrayal of suburbia as a hotbed of youthful ennui and suppressed danger, the film hews fairly closely to the tropes of 1950s melodrama, but the dialogue is a notch less compelling than the highlights of the genre (such as Douglas Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows), and several scenes meander needlessly. And while Sal Mineo’s terrific turn as Plato handily matches Dean’s performance for charisma and distinctiveness, starlet Natalie Wood struggles to give Judy much depth.
But Ray’s direction controls the film’s simmering emotional conflicts with typical assurance and precision, giving the plot necessary momentum while gracefully and discreetly building the uneasiness that flowers in the film’s bittersweet climax. One of post-War Hollywood’s finest auteurs but tragically overlooked in his lifetime, Ray continues to accrue posthumous esteem, and several of his finest films--In a Lonely Place, Johnny Guitar, and Bigger Than Life in particular—are now recognized as crucial moments in film history. But Rebel Without a Cause belongs less to Ray and more to Dean: his performance is an embodiment of decades-old cultural anxieties that have not quite been extinguished, and its potency remains undeniable.