Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

Viewed May 12th


An idealistic teenager struggles to make sense of a world where gender is unstable and the local hoods keep calling him "chicken."

Rebel Without a Cause is a great title, but it's a misnomer. The protagonist Jim is a rebel, but he's not without a cause; on the contrary, Jim focuses on a single, obsessive cause: what his love interest Judy will go on to call "the main thing," which is sincerity. Jim finds the world false and endlessly compromised and because of his idealism, he can't settle. He gets into trouble wherever he goes and finds himself suffering from a major crisis of gender and sexuality brought on primarily by Jim Backus as the apron-wearing father. Jim craves a masculine role model and seems to almost find one in the police juvenile division counselor, but at the same time he's drawn toward queerness, perhaps best symbolized by--in a moment of desperation--his chugging of a translucent, phallic-shaped bottle of white milk, followed by his caressing of the bottle against his face.

The way this is all framed is not as gritty realism, but dreamlike classicism. With a few small changes Rebel Without a Cause would have been quite at home as an allegorical drama in ancient Greece. Walking from one classically-styled building to another--most notably the planetarium and the courtyard of the abandoned mansion--Jim and his cohorts engage in weighty dialogues about what it's all supposed to mean as if they were Socrates and his interlocutors passing through Athens. Indeed, one of Jim's only friends in the film is named Plato.

Part Los Angeles and part small town U.S.A., the film isn't about a particular situation in a particular place; it's about the situation occurring among people at the time in which it was made. And indeed, director Nicholas Ray's vision defined the ethos of a generation and continues to reverberate to this day. Along with, say, The Searchers and Vertigo, Rebel Without a Cause represents a high-point of technicolor Hollywood classicism. It stands as a landmark of American art.  

And, of course, no discussion of the film can leave out the main attraction--the incredible performance of James Dean. In order to create a classical allegory for the modern age, there are all sorts of things that would have to go into the filmmaking to make it work and not feel silly or pretentious. But most important would be a central anchoring performance. We have to enter the world of a narrative film through the eyes of an actor. And James Dean delivers entry point that so thoroughly that we get lost inside the world of the movie and it at times feels utterly unreal to watch it. With its lush technicolor, minimalist production design, its evocation of nothing less than the history of the universe, and its timeline extending essentially through a single day, the viewer becomes caught in a dream. And Dean keeps us there. How could James Dean be real? Because of his associations with the method school of acting, he has a reputation for realism--the type of realism that led Cary Grant to retire from acting. But, in fact, the beauty of Dean is not his realism (who acts like this? who could act like this?), but his highly affected unreality. The only other film reference is the photo of Cary Grant in Plato's locker.  And indeed, not since Grant had Hollywood seen such an alien masculine beauty.