Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Target #186: Rebel Without a Cause (1955, Nicholas Ray)

TSPDT ranking: #360
Directed by: Nicholas Ray
Written by: Stewart Stern (screenplay), Irving Shulman (adaptation), Nicholas Ray (story)
Starring: James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Jim Backus, Ann Doran, Corey Allen, William Hopper, Rochelle Hudson, Edward Platt

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!!

When it comes to 1950s cinema, few films are more iconic than Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause (1955), which was one of the first to actively explore the themes of juvenile delinquency and the decay of American youth, and the widening rift between adolescents and their parents. The screenplay by Stewart Stern and Irving Shulman, from a story by the director, derived its title from an actual 1944 publication, "Rebel Without A Cause: The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath," but bares little other resemblance to this book. Of the three feature films for which James Dean is remembered, it is this one with which he is most closely associated, his tragic death in a motor accident on September 30 1955 somewhat validating his reputation as a "rebel without a cause," ensuring his enduring legacy as an American cultural icon {though undoubtedly denying the cinema-going public of a lifetime of brilliant performances}. In 1956, Ray's film received three Oscar nominations, including acting nods for co-stars Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo {Dean received the first of his two posthumous Best Actor nominations, but for Elia Kazan's East of Eden (1955) rather than this film}.

Jim Stark (Dean) is a rebellious seventeen-year-old, whose tendency to get into trouble with the police forces his family to move neighbourhoods often. He is one of three adolescents in the film whose degrading relationship with their parents – to varying degrees, as I'll explain – attempts to demonstrate and explain the widening rift between generations. Jim finds himself able to talk to his father (Jim Backus), but can next coax a straight answer out of him. Frank Stark is a meek, submissive husband – shown in one scene dressed in a woman's apron to highlight his lack of household authority – and Jim finds it difficult to respect him. Judy (Natalie Wood) can hardly interact with her father (William Hopper), as he resents her approaching maturity and labels her a "dirty tramp" for dressing up and using lipstick. As for the troubled Plato (Sal Mineo), his parents have more or less deserted him, and he is left in the care of an African-American maid who isn't able to control his disturbed personality. By the end of the film, Plato has become the story's "sacrificial lamb," his tragic shooting death the inevitable culmination of the neglect of his parents.
Had a lesser director held the reins during the film's production, it would have been easy for Rebel Without a Cause to erode in quality with the passing of time. A picture dealing with then-contemporary issues such as juvenile delinquency {today a considerably more complex and troubling subject} might now appear dated, but it holds up surprisingly well, both as a societal caution and as artistic entertainment. The first ten minutes do, indeed, feel something like a public service announcement, but the narrative falls into a comfortable rhythm as we come to know and sympathise with the major characters. Likewise, some outdated elements now seem exaggerated and a little silly {the consequences of the "chickie-run" didn't need to be quite so drastic – and Judy completely forgot the death of her boyfriend within hours}, but all is forgiven in view of James Dean's memorable, incredibly heartfelt performance. His anguished cry of "you're tearing me apart!" betrays the confusion and torment suffered by many youths stranded in a household that they can't understand, and whose shortcomings they blame on themselves – Jim's mother (Ann Doran), notably, uses her son's actions as a scapegoat for the failing of her marriage.


Currently my #3 film of 1955:
1) The Ladykillers (Alexander Mackendrick)
2) Nuit et brouillard {Night and Fog} (Alain Resnais)
3) Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray)
4) The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton)
5) The Trouble with Harry (Alfred Hitchcock)

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