Rebel Without a Cause
Film Title: Rebel Without a Cause
Director: Nicholas Ray
Starring: James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Jim Backus
Running Time: 111 min
It’s nearly 60 years since James Dean died, aged just 24, in a car crash. His brief stardom spanned 18 months and yielded only three films. But with those three key texts, Dean exemplifies everything that was best about method acting in the 1950s. He could match contemporary Brando for staccato fury and halting, mumbling angst. He equalled Monroe’s split-second light-bulb switch from downcast to dazzle. His little-lost-boy moments, ranging from puppy dog to rising terror, keep pace with Montgomery Clift.
Arguably, Rebel Without a Cause is not Dean’s greatest turn. The Oedipal oomph and biblical scope of East of Eden gives him more to do. And his transformation from resentful young cur to self-loathing victor in Giant is a marvel: having smote his enemies, he continues to radiate a sense of unworthiness from behind sleazy sunglasses and ageing make-up.
For all that, Rebel Without a Cause is the picture you’d screen for an alien. The actor’s most iconic role besets a voguish drama about hot rods and latchkey kids and juvenile delinquents. The screenplay was drawn from The Blind Run, a 17-page story by director Nicholas Ray and psychiatrist Robert M Lindner’s 1944 book, Rebel Without a Cause: The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath.
Its sociological inclinations have not necessarily aged well. A key sequence wherein Dean and fellow outsider teens Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo form a make-believe family is pure ’50s pop psychology. And only Dean could get away with such sulky one-liners as “You’re tearing me apart!” and “I don’t know what to do anymore. Except maybe die.”
But Ray’s idea to shift focus onto middle-class maladjustment would define the themes of every teen movie made after: misunderstood kids, youthful subcultures, peer pressure, intergenerational conflicts and puppy love.
Ray, a studio film-maker later embraced by the nouvelle vague movement as Hollywood’s “poet of darkness”, brought a keen realism to material that many contemporary critics and viewers found shocking and lurid. The film has not lost all of that impact: the scene in which Mineo is surrounded by thuggish Bigger Boys in an empty swimming pool retains a transfixing terror. And that red jacket continues blazes vigorously and unendingly on.