Classic Movie Review: Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

Title: Rebel Without a Cause
Release Date: October 26, 1955
Director: Nicholas Ray
Production Company: Warner Bros.

Rebel Without a Cause is one of those iconic movies that seems to permeate popular culture, but having never watched it before, I was surprised that it was not what I’d imagined.  The movie begins with three of the main characters (all strangers to one another at the time) being brought to the juvenile division: Jim Stark (James Dean) is brought in for drunkeness, “Plato” Crawford (Sal Mineo) for killing puppies, and Judy (Natalie Wood) for violating curfew.  A sympathetic police inspector, Ray Fremick (Edward Platt), and the movie indicates at this point that teenagers have real concerns and worries that should be respected (the rest of the movie seems to shift back and forth in its sympathies toward the teenagers).

Jim, the rebel, actually seems to be a conscientious kid with a strong moral compass (albeit a tendency for saying inappropriate things), but is frustrated that his family keeps moving him around and he’s unable to make and maintain friendships. On his way to his first day at a new high school he meets Judy and flirts with her, but she rides off with gang of cool kids lead by Buzz (Corey Allen).  At school, Plato befriends Jim and begins to idolizes him.  It’s not clear whether the filmmakers intended it or not, but Mineo’s performance is coded as being gay.

In one, busy and tragic day, the new kid Jim goes through hazing at the hands of the cool kids, including a knife fight and a deadly game of chicken on a cliffside.  Jim, Plato, and Judy try to escape their worries by playing house in an abandoned mansion (the same one used in Sunset Boulevard), but even there they can’t escape violence and tragedy.

The acting performances of the three leads excel despite a hackneyed script and a whole lot of melodrama. There’s an underlying ugliness to the movie.  Jim attributes many of his problems to his father, Frank (a pre-Mr. Magoo/Gilligan’s Island Jim Backus), being subservient to his mother (Ann Doran).  The movie even has him wearing a frilly apron in one scene, apparently to show his lack of manliness and “castration” by his harridan wife.  Plato’s troubles are ascribed to the absence of his parents – which is plausible – and that instead he’s raised by the family’s housekeeper, a unnamed black woman (Marietta Canty), which is totally racist.

The movie is horribly dated and fails to live up to the promise of its opening scenes in depicting the real-life travails of American teenagers.  On the other hand, the movie was clearly shocking and surprisingly original in its treatment of teenagers at the time.  It’s a shame that James Dean was killed in a car crash a month before the movie’s release and he never had the chance to build on his performance.

Rating: ***