A film starring James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo, with direction by Nicholas Ray, Rebel Without a Cause follows three teenagers, who are confused and conflicted about their lives.
The initial sequence rolling behind the opening credits has the inebriated Jim Stark lying in the street fiddling with a toy monkey. Then, he is brought into juvenile hall, and simultaneously the story gives us a glimpse of not only the rowdy Jim, but discontented Judy, and the distant boy Plato. Each one has their own personal pain, and thus this film from the beginning really focuses on three rebels, who embody the adolescent generation. James Dean is Jim Stark: the new kid on the block, who is constantly moving with his parents. In the station when his parents retrieve him, there is obvious tension on all fronts, which include heated arguments, and outbursts on the part of Jim.
The morning after being brought in he meets Judy only to get mixed up with her friends. Stark however also befriends the isolated loner Plato, who was in the station the night before. The trouble with the other teens starts with a switchblade contest during a school excursion to Griffith Observatory, but the stakes get bigger when they compete in a “Chickie Run” over a cliff. Stark lives but the other boy, Buzz, dies in the accident. Everyone flees the scene before the police arrive.
Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Dean and Wood’s characters gravitate towards each other. Their parents seemingly do not understand them, and so they find comfort in each other instead. Their new found friend Plato tags along as they hold up in an abandoned mansion for the night. They spend the evening lounging around, making light of their parents and just talking.
However, all does not bode well when some of the high school thugs come looking for Stark. Plato flees the scene with a gun, and soon he has policemen on his tail. Plato is in a paranoid and unstable state. Jim tries to console him and bring him out peacefully. But despite his best efforts, tragedy strikes one final blow. All is not wasted, however, because Jim’s father (Jim Bachus) vows to be a better and stronger parent than he was before.
Following his breakthrough in East of Eden, Rebel would be the movie that defined Dean’s short but iconic career. His line “you’re tearing me apart!” would further define the angst felt by many teens at the time. There is a certain aura around this film for some reason, maybe because of Dean’s portrayal that is at times so moody, and at other times so subtle, but powerful nonetheless.
I think part of the credit must go to director Nicholas Ray, who gave Dean free reign to improvise and develop his character in the way he saw fit. The film is tragic in another sense because all the primary stars died at an early age. Dean’s is the most remembered, but Mineo and Wood, both died extremely young as well. In Rebel Without a Cause, they all gave memorable performances and there are other notable players in this film including the usually comedic Jim Bachus and a very young Dennis Hopper.
I think Rebel ultimately survives today because it tells a universal tale of a generational divide and a divide between young people fighting peer pressure. In the heads of teenagers the world can become jumbled and between school, fitting in, and home life it can be a struggle. This film dramatically illustrates that fact. So maybe the kids look different, the cars are older and such, but the struggles of Jim Stark, Judy, and Plato are still relatively the same. I must say this film really makes me want to visit the Griffith Observatory too, because it became such an integral part of this film’s story, and it is still around to this day.
James Dean only had three major film performances and you could make a case for which was the best. I think it is safe to say that this role was his most iconic. It’s hard not to identify him with his red jacket, blue jeans, and the ubiquitous cigarette. He was the Rebel Without a Cause.