21 December 2009

Film | Rebel Without A Cause

1955 | 111m | Col | USA | Juvenile Delinquency Film, Family Drama | TSPDT #293

A rebellious young man with a troubled past comes to a new town, finding friends and enemies.

Nicholas Ray

Nicholas Ray, Irving Shulman, Stewart Stern

Nicholas Ray (screenplay)
Sal Mineo (actor in supporting role)
Natalie Wood (actress in supporting role)

James Dean, Natalie Wood, Jim Backus, Ann Doran, Rochelle Hudson, William Hopper, Sal Mineo, Corey Allen

From the beginning, the film took on an eerie sort of fame: as James Dean died in a car crash a month before the movie opened in 1955. It was the posthumous complaint of an actor widely expected to have a long and famous career. Rebel Without A Cause is filled to the brim with film-making inspiration: the characters, the shots, the music, and especially the themes. The poetic longing for connection in this film can never really date. A latter-day Hamlet, Jim (James Dean) feels that life is a pointless choice between being and not being. In France at the time, that was called existentialism, but in Jim's Los Angeles, rebels were not so articulate.

This is the first teen film where I've really felt sorry for "the new guy in town who's trying to fit in", without just thinking "toughen up princess".  It was sad.  These guys were absolute pricks - and even worse, the whole film is set on his first day at a new school!  At the end of the film, James Dean says:
Like even today. I woke up this
morning, you know? And the sun was
shining and everything was nice.
Then the first thing that happens
is I see you and I thought this is
going to be one terrific day so you
better live it up, boy, 'cause
tomorrow maybe you'll be nothing.
I thought Natalie Wood's performance was mediocre considering that she was nominated for best supporting actress.  Although she is embarrassingly convincing in the initial scenes as she cries her eyes out at the police station because her Daddy doesn't love her anymore, she fails to shed a single tear after the death of her long-time boyfriend, and later in a dramatic gundown.  And seriously, if you were seeing someone for a long time, then suddenly fell for another guy, then twelve hours later your boyfriend died - would you THEN make out with and confess your love to the new heart throb?  I know James Dean is gorgeous, but it's completely ridiculous. I suppose it's understandable if you look deeper in her situation, and overall I felt genuinely sorry for most of the characters moping around, burdened with narcissistic self-pity.

Every shot was perfectly proportioned in an almost Raphaelistic fashion, but also had a certain edge.  I just had a problem with the formulaic conventions of lighting (day time is yellow, night time is blue) that plague the beginnings of colour film.  Patience, patience.

"Nicholas Ray's moving 1955 tale of teenage romanticism thwarted by an adult world of televisions and atomic bombs established James Dean as America's first underage icon. Dean's alienation is perfectly expressed through Ray's vertiginous mise-en-scene: the suburban LA setting becomes a land of decaying Formica and gothic split-levels. An unmissable film, made with a delirious compassion."
- Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader


Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause opens with a startling diagonal composition, as Jim (James Dean) lies sprawled on a street; the camera captures him dramatically at near eye level and prominently exploites the then-new Cinemascope. In fact, I've just learnt that Ray was the pioneer in developing a horizontal aesthetic, and in this film in particular lent a sensuality to the images of alienation. If this feeling pervaded exteriors, a sense of claustrophobia permeated the spatial tensions of the cluttered interiors. In relation to film theory, diagonal lines carry the most visual weight (over horizontal and vertical).

Ray, who studied with the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, drew on Impressionist painter Edouard Manet's Le Toreo Mort (The Dead Bullfighter) to create an intimate yet formally composed shot.  The painting resonates throughout the film on a thematic level as well: Manet's sense of the bullfighter's romanticism is woven into Ray's portrayal of tempestuous and self-destructive youth.  I really love the idea of drawing on visual art in film for it's aethestic and thematic depths.  The complex references of this visually arresting shot underscore the fact that the opening and closing shots of the film carry tremendous significance.

Seems like a pretty good cause to me.

Colour functions as a motif throughout the film.  The colour red in this film suggests a fusion existential anguish and sexual urges of the "younger generation".  Red first appears in Judy's coat and lipstick above, in the simulated explosion of the galaxy at the observatory, and Jim's red jacket which sets the tone for youthful rebellion.

There are screen shots and an undercurrent theme analysis below
See more...

The philosophical stage for the impending duel is set during a class trip to the Griffith Park Observatory. The subject is "The End of Man," and the lecturer happily describes the sun growing larger until it explodes and wipes out all traces of mankind. "The Earth will not be missed," the lecturer informs the students. "Through the infinite reaches of space, the problems of man seem trivial and naive indeed, and man existing alone seems himself an episode of little consequence." This is not the note of optimism they require.

I don't want trouble.

"The most complicated aspect of Rebel, and the thing that makes it seem daring even today, is its sexuality. Ray was bisexual (as was Dean) and he was sleeping with both Wood and Mineo while they shot the film. He brings Wood's beauty into full flowering and gets a simple, touching performance from her (though she is overwrought in her first scene). With Mineo, Ray craftily put together a portrait of a tormented gay teenager. Stern's script tells us that Plato is searching for a father figure in Jim Stark (and Plato's famed locker photo of Alan Ladd shows that he wants a Shane-type father, not a lover), but the way Mineo looks at Dean leaves no modern audience in doubt as to what his real feelings are."

- Dan Callahan, Slant Magazine

"Dean's Jim Stark is clearly laboring under a burden of heightened sensitivity, which is why the '50s complacency of his parents and their milieu is, in his words, tearing him apart. He doesn't want to be called a chicken by his peers, but he realizes that the tests of manhood he is forced to endure by the thugs at school are bullshit, as false in their way as the world of his parents. So, in the most magical section of the film, Jim and his friends Judy (Natalie Wood) and Plato (Sal Mineo) take over a deserted mansion and try to make a family for themselves. This primal, Borzage-style sequence doesn't last long, but it has made a major impact on anybody who has seen it."

- Dan Callahan, Slant Magazine

You think the end of the world will
come at nighttime, Jim?

No. At dawn.

When Plato is shot, Ray has Jim and Judy in the frame with him and he tilts the camera with the impact of the bullet; it's one of the most devastating shots in film history because it visually annihilates the rapport the three teenagers have built up in an instant. Jim and Judy go off together, but Ray underlines the film's sense of loss by saving the last close-up for the only other person who loved Plato, his nurse (Marietta Canty).

In this last shot, it's actually Ray himself who enters the planetarium at the break of day, a great film director surveying the blank slate left after Jim, Judy, and Plato's wishful, improved civilization is wiped out in a flash of gunfire.

Some themes are clear now, but would have been less clear in the 50s. For instance, the underlying sexual malaise in Judy's house. In a scene at dinner, she gives her father (William Hopper) a peck on the cheek, and he reacts with embarrassment: "What's the matter with you? You're getting too old for that kind of stuff. ... Girls your age don't do things like that." Judy responds: "Girls don't love their father? Since when? Since I got to be 16?" The implication is that her father is afraid of his sexual feelings for his daughter.

Also, Plato simply must be gay and has a crush on Jim; at the planetarium, he touches his shoulder caressingly. After Buzz dies when his car hurtles over the cliff, the students all seem curiously -- well, composed. Jim gives Plato a lift home and Plato asks him, "Hey, you want to come home with me? I mean, there's nobody home at my house, and heck, I'm not tired. Are you?" But Jim glances in the direction of Judy's house, and then so does Plato, ruefully.