I have arrived at one of the truly legendary movies on the list. “Rebel Without a Cause” is a movie everybody has heard of if not seen and usually for two reasons: James Dean and as the kick off of the rebellious youth character. I knew as much going in, but I actually had not seen it before.
To my pleasant surprise “Rebel Without a Cause” is a lot more than that.
The Book writes that this is the first movie to deal with youth crime, but will take it a step further and claim that this is the first movie to portray youth culture at all. The closest thing prior to this one is the idiotic “Babes in Arms” from 39, but those were just children playing at being adults. Before “Rebel Without a Cause” there were only children and adults. Coming of age a child would suddenly turn adult and do adult things. Now for the first time a movie describes the age in between as a separate entity, as a phase during which people are neither children nor adults, but something in transition.
This may sound trivial in an age soaked in youth culture, where every third movie uses that as target or source, but in the fifties this was something of a revolution. It is clear from the movie that this is a phase with its own problems and frustrations, something we know very well today, but apparently it came as a surprise back then. I found it most interesting to get a glimpse into this world of 1955 nascent youth culture.
Even this however is not the real mission of the movie, although it may be its greatest contribution to later generations. The real story here is about people lacking the support they need from their families and so break out of the system create their own. That these are teenagers seem almost coincidental and likely due to the sensitivity of this age group.
All of our three characters are groping for something their families cannot give them. Jim (James Dean) lives in what he considers a zoo. His father is living to placate his wife and his mother, both eager to control the family. The father tries to be his friend, but Jim needs a father, a man who can put his foot down and has dignity. The humiliation of his father rubs off on him and he despises his father and hates the two other women for it. Consequently he strives for dignity and self-respect.
Judy (Natalie Wood) is striving to break free of her controlling parents. They seem hell-bent on maintaining her status as a child and refuse to see the budding adult. Consequently everything she does is a rebellion of these shackles. Hanging out with the wrong guys, staying out till late, wearing make-up and so on. Not an entirely unheard of teenage issue.
The sorriest of the three is Plato (Sal Mineo). He lives alone in a mansion with a housekeeper. None of his parents are present. What exactly they do is not clear, but Plato has been abandoned by parents who do not care for him. Just imagine the effect that has on a 16 year old guy. He has turned into a seriously disturbed young man who is craving for recognition and friendship and most of all someone who can be his parents. At the same time he is full of bitterness towards a world that consistently lets him down.
What these three characters find out is that they can find what they need from each other, whether it is dignity, respect or love, and thereby break out of the institutional core family structure. That is a heartbreaking, but also heartwarming story and something I can imagine struck a chord in its time. It is a coming of age story in a sense, but more so a critique and alternative to 1950’ies family dogma.
Around this core story there are a lot more going on. There is a counter culture among the young people with gangs, violence and crazy stunt, which sort of warns us of the dark side of rebellion and serves as a challenge for the three characters. This includes the most disturbing scene of the movie where Jim is challenged by gang leader Buzz to a deadly game of chikie run. It is glorious and it is shocking.
Yet for all this what we probably remember the most is that this is one of three movies James Dean did before he died, not in a chickie run, but close, speeding in the dark without lights. It is no wonder James Dean got idolized over this movie, he completely nails it and the camera loves him, but his early death also contributed to the legend. I see James Dean’s influence pop up countless times in pop culture through the six decades since his dead in attitudes, looks, gazes, rage and restless energy. Frankly I do not think his influence can be overstated and this movie is where it started.
There are a lot of reasons to recommend “Rebel Without a Cause”, but I think I will recommend it not for all the above reasons but because it is simple a good and interesting movie with a good story, interesting characters and a nerve that keeps me glued to my seat.
Anything negative I can think of? Only that I wish somebody had punched Jim’s grandmother on the nose and not just her painting.