Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955)

“You know something?  I like you.”
“Why do we do this?”
“You’ve gotta do something.  Don’t you?”

That’s the boorish, hyper-masculinized Buzz (Corey Allen) doing the liking, and the awkward outcast and new guy Jim Stark (James Dean) asking why they’re doing this.  The ‘this’ is a Chickie Run, where Buzz and Jim will drive stolen cars towards the edge of the cliff, and the first man to bail from his car is the chicken.  It’s all the result of a knife fight outside the planetarium earlier, when Jim dared to defend himself from the faux-intimidating Buzz and his goons, with words and blade (“You know something? You read too many comic books”).  So what’s up with all this?  Why is a knife fight the obligatory rite of passage for these high schoolers?  Why is an already-dangerous knife fight followed by a much more deadly Chickie Run (as we’ll soon learn once pedal is put to metal)?

Because you gotta do something, don’t you?

Because in the mind of the crude caricature Buzz and even the more psychologically complex Jim, the Chickie Run is mandatory – it is a rite of passage, a chance for one man (if you can even use the term “man” with these high schoolers) to thump his chest prove his masculinity over the other (don’t ever call Jim Stark chicken, by the way).  It’s been ingrained in their heads that this must be done, that proving one’s masculinity in a death-defying stunt isn’t just an opportunity, it’s a requirement.  It’s a system of gender roles, of pissing contests, that they’re unable (or unwilling) to resist.  Try as they might to pull free and defy convention, Jim, Judy, Plato, Buzz and his goons, parents, cops, they’re all slaves to the system, all either falling rigidly into the role of “man” or “woman” or “kid” or square “mom” or “dad”, or when they defy those roles, stick out like a sore thumb.  “Rebel Without a Cause” can be unfathomably melodramatic at points (something you’d know I’m never a fan of if you know me), with banal performances and a shootout/standoff climax that nearly undoes all that the movie’s accomplished to that point.  But, it’s also one of the great portraits / criticisms of gender and age roles, and the pressure from society to conform to those roles, that I’ve seen in any film.

It’s a great portrait of those roles because those themes are only hinted at, they’re between the lines, rather than right there in your face.  On paper “Rebel Without a Cause” is 50s melodrama at its worst, but so many hidden desires and character faults and faults of society, are there for the viewer to discover, waiting to burst through the facade of cinematic melodrama.  And it’s the little things, a fleeting glimpse of something off-kilter in the Stark household, or a mere hint of Plato’s (Sal Mineo) forbidden love for Jim, or Judy’s (Natalie Wood) father, so clearly uncomfortable with the idea of having close contact, even an innocent peck on the cheek, from his suddenly-vivacious daughter, that give the movie incredibly complexity.  But most importantly, those hints of the hypocrisy of gender roles and the like aren’t overtly criticized, or praised.  We see them as is, and we’re left to – no, challenged to – be reviled or approving.  We see both points of view.  In the opening scenes, as a drunk Jim confides in a sympathetic policeman at the station, he admits his disgust of his domineering mother, and how she basically has her husband by the balls.  “If he had guts to knock Mom cold once,” he says, “then maybe she’d be happy and then she’d stop picking on him.”  In today’s day and age we’re shocked by such a prospect, but later we see things as Jim sees them, as he comes home to find his father, cleaning food off the floor, wearing the frilliest apron you can imagine, worried like a guilty dog that his wife will find out what he did.  It’s one of the most pathetic sights I’ve ever seen in a film.  But is it right to be reviled by it?  For the entire film Jim implores his dad to stand up for himself and assert himself as the man of the house (Jim’s mother really is portrayed as one of the film’s de facto villains), and yet at the same time Plato isn’t exactly sanctioned for being anything but “manly”, and Buzz, the epitome of masculine bully, is clearly the bad guy.  All at once, the concept of patriarchy is both supported and criticized.  Some would call this inconsistent, I’d call it complex.  It certainly made me think, and that’s something I can’t say 50s melodrama is the genre I’d associate that with.

Consider the shy, diminutive Plato, even more of an outcast than the new guy on the block, Jim.  Any idiot of the lowest common denominator watching even a moment of “Rebel Without a Cause” can tell that Plato’s meant to be gay.  Of course, the Hayes Code forbade any direct reference to a character’s homosexuality, but in the case of Plato, that’s not necessary.  The writing’s on the wall: the Alan Ladd photo in his locker, the way he looks longingly at Jim, practically leans on him during the planetarium show, close enough for Jim to feel Plato’s breath on the back of his neck, the way Plato tries to coax Jim to come home with him soon after a tragedy, making sure to mention that the place would be empty, and they’d have the house all to themselves.  Even when Jim is imploring his dad to act more like a man, on the other side of the coin, Plato is arguably the most sympathetic character in the film…but maybe for the wrong reasons.  He’s the victim, and you could argue he’s incompetent.  When Jim, Judy and Plato exile themselves in the abandoned mansion once Buzz’s buddies start looking for them, a fascinating thing happens: they play house.  This whole time, Jim’s hated his home life with his domineering mother and wet noodle father, Judy’s hated her home life with her sexually uncomfortable father, and Plato’s hated his home life, with no parents and only a kindly maid to care for him.  All three distance themselves from the typical family structure, yet must have it, which is why they play prototypical husband and wife – the unreasonably perfect life they can’t have.  And Plato’s place in this little game?  Well, once he’s done playing real estate agent, he’s basically the child of Jim and Judy, complete with him falling asleep at his feet, them covering him with a blanket like loving parents.  How ironic, these three young adults escape from civilization and make camp in its wastelands, and yet feign the very social mores that are deemed “acceptable” by the very society they’re running from.  It’s fascinating, what begins as a bizarre love triangle (Judy loves Jim and can have him, Plato loves Jim and can’t have him, and Jim doesn’t know what he wants…he basically falls into the role of Judy’s mate because society tells him to for all I know) becomes the all-too-“normal” husband-wife-child relationship, with Plato, the gay outcast, as the poor, defenseless child who by film’s end is undoubtedly the victim of the system.  So what gives?  Is the movie applauding Plato for being different, or lamenting his fate as a victim, the defenseless child of the sexier, heterosexual-er Jim and Judy because he has that-sexuality-that-must-not-be-named?  I don’t know, it’s all really complex, but then again, so is the real-life jigsaw puzzle that is conforming to societal gender standards, and some way, somehow, this piece of melodrama with sappy acting and sappy music captured that complex double-standard to a T.

And then there’s Dean.  The man and the myth…well, more of the myth.  The legend.  Even more so than the limited starring roles he actually had, his legend and fame arguably comes from the fact that he died at such a young age in a car accident (making the Chickie Run scene that much more disturbing).  Hell, he was dead by the time this very movie was released.  And the film world lost something special.  Maybe not at that very moment in time, but soon enough Dean was gonna be something awfully special.  Look, is his performance as Jim Stark “great?”  I think not.  I think it falls short of that.  When he’s drunk, he’s too drunk, brings too much attention to himself in the performance.  When he’s frustrated with his parents, he’s a little too carnal, a little too animalistic (cue the famous “you’re tearing me apart!” line…a line, and delivery, that are insanely over the top, but do blurt out all the pent-up frustrations of emotionally-suppressed teenagers in a grand explosion).  When he’s trying to show up Buzz and his gang outside the planetarium, he’s a little too cool and collected (to the point of being stoic and statue-like, like a monk in Tianenmen Square).  So great?  No, because it’s too much “acting,” too much of a “performance,” too “demonstrative,” even when he’s just standing there.  If it’s not a great performance, it’s at least the most attention-grabbing in a film filled with stock performances (with the exception of Sal Mineo as Plato) of menacing gangs, square cops and parents, and even an interesting but ultimately “ordinary” turn by Natalie Wood.  It’s not great, but it was a sign of things to come.  I see Dean at the climax of his young life and acting career as the hot young pitching prospect: a blistering 100 mph fastball, but an undeveloped breaking pitch.  I won’t go on about how Dean was the next Brando and how he was a prime student of the school of method acting, ‘cuz that’s been done to death.  He was so close to being a truly great actor, and he was only 24 years old.  And it shows in “Rebel Without a Cause,” even when he takes the whole method acting thing a little too seriously.  When he’s right, boy is he right.  Like in the opening credits, with his wonderful piece of improvisation as he lies on the pavement, caring for the toy monkey, covering it in a makeshift blanket, like it were his child.  It’s telling of Jim’s living situation – is he miming the compassionate mother he wants to have but doesn’t have, even while he implores his father to be more of a man?  And when he’s not acting all stark-raving mad or ultra-cool, there’s something especially touching in the way he acts.  When he’s calmly talking a panicky Plato out of a jam, or wooing Judy in the abandoned mansion, or confessing all of his frustrations to the cop who understands his plight, he’s cool and collected and a feminized-macho hybrid, yet calming and soothing and loving, all at the same time.  Hell, his voice actually sounds like Brando’s, even putting vocal intonations aside.  Maybe this single performance wouldn’t be as famous as it is if Dean wasn’t killed soon after, but just imagine how much better he would’ve been with more roles and more time to develop his craft.  He became a legend in death, but with time and experience he could’ve been a legend in life.  What a shame.

“Rebel Without a Cause” is outdated.  There’s no way around it.  From Buzz and his greaser pals to the leather jackets to Dean’s hairdo to the melodramatic dialogue.  Hell, even its status as an exposé on juvenile delinquency is outdated.  But in terms of being topical, of capturing the mess brought about by double-standards of 1950s gender roles, “Rebel Without a Cause” has some amazing depth behind the melodrama that’d seem shallow, but is anything but.  And it’s damn-well made, too.  From the vibrant colors (and go figure, the movie was originally going to be in black and white), case in point Jim’s striking red jacket that broadcasts his rage, his passion, and every emotion in between, to some great establishment of mood, especially in the dank abandoned mansion that’s turned into a makeshift home a la the run-down house in “It’s a Wonderful Life”, and the planetarium.  Consider that presentation the kids sit through in the planetarium.  “The Earth will not be missed,” the old square of a lecturer says.  “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.”  What a thing to say in a presentation about constellations and shit!  An astronomy lesson turns into Macbeth’s “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” soliloquy.  But in a way, that old codger at the control panel is right: in terms of outdated 1950s values, and juvenile delinquency worries that are now obsolete, the worries of the emotionally-stifled Jim and Mr. Stark and Plato and Judy, all products of the 1950s, are trivial and naive, and are of little consequence in the grand scheme of time and space.  But some things, like the themes of acceptance, emotional and intellectual freedom, and gender-bending uniqueness that could do no more than peek through the blinds of conventional cinematic melodrama and America’s hush-hush attitude in 1955, only now burst through this “episode of little consequence” and become something that long outlives the criminally short life of the dude with the slicked-back hair and the red jacket.

9.5/10

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1 comment so far

  1. matt on

    This blog’s great!! Thanks :).


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