Sunday, April 20, 2014

Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

Director: Nicholas Ray                                      Writer: Stewart Stern & Irving Schulman
Film Score: Leonard Rosenman                         Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Starring: James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Jim Backus and Ann Doren

Teen angst. Abundant fodder for films in the last thirty years, it really began in the mid-fifties with films like The Wild One, Blackboard Jungle, and this iconic picture, Rebel Without a Cause. The problem with trying to look at films like this objectively is that they very quickly became a cliché before the decade was out with teenage exploitation horror films and Elvis Presley. But it’s not just the genre. Even the supporting actors in the film like Jim Backus and Edward Platt would become cliché’s in their own right in goofy sixties sitcoms. Natalie Wood, who was much better known as the symbol of purity and innocence from West Side Story, the last of this kind of film, doesn’t seem to resonate as the “bad girl.” So, at the end of the day this film is really about the performance of James Dean. And it’s a good one. Though associated with Marlon Brando for his brooding style, Dean seems far superior to Brando here, with an introspective style that doesn’t seem overdone.

The story begins on Easter Sunday evening in the police station, James Dean being picked up for drunkenness and Natalie Wood for running away from home. Their parents, of course, are clueless to the cause of their unhappiness, but then so are the kids themselves. Dean’s parents moved because of his previous difficulties, and he just happens to live next door to Wood. At school on his first day he has a run-in with a gang in leather jackets and cuffed jeans. Later at the planetarium in Los Angeles they force him into a knife fight, which he wins, then challenge him to a drag race off a cliff, last one out of the car being the loser. But when Corey Allen can’t get out of the car he plunges into the ocean to his death. Dean hates his parents because his father, Jim Backus, is weak and allows his mother, Ann Doren, to dominate him. He goes to tell the police and even they don’t want him around. Finally, he and Wood go to an abandoned mansion in the hills just to be alone, but trouble follows them.

Whatever has made the film a classic over the years certainly has nothing to do with the plot, because there’s very little of one. It is simply a character piece and because Dean died a few days before the film opened, it instantly became successful and has pretty much stayed that way. That said, it definitely is a huge step up from something like Crime in the Streets, which suffers from way too much unmotivated angst. While I’m sure there are dozens of cultural analyses that deal with fifties malaise, that’s not really what should make a film lasting. The work should be able to stand on it’s own and I’m not sure this one does. As editor Jay Carr points out in his A List essay that the film began as simply another teen film, made to compete with the other studios. But because of the breakout performance that James Dean had earlier that year in East of Eden, Jack Warner scrapped the idea and turned the film into a Warnercolor prestige picture.

As is the case with so many A List entries, Carr reads way more into the picture than is really there. Sure, Dean is good, so far as it goes, but declaring that he and the film would “define a new genre, zap the zeitgeist, and be instrumental in opening the floodgates of the 1960s?” Come on. There have been disaffected youths in this country almost from the time the country began. To say that fifties teens were any more traumatized than any other previous generation makes for nicely self-indulgent analysis but doesn’t make it true. Carr talks about the shallowness of the writing for Natalie Wood’s character but then fails to notice that the entire film is written that way. Sure, Dean seems tormented, but he’s not really saying anything that means anything. In fact, Dean’s obsession with honor seems more like an eighteenth-century throwback than something new.

This is teen exploitation, pure and simple, however wide the screen and deep the colors and popular the stars. It’s a film about teenagers that was meant to appeal to teenagers. The fifties saw the birth of disposable income and the studios were out to get their slice of the pie. The real tragedy is in not knowing what kind of adult actor Dean would have become after he shed his now-indelible teen image. Sal Mineo’s character, far from being the latent homosexual of Carr’s imaginings, is simply searching for a role model that he never had, and in that sense he is no different than Dean. The fantasy family scene at the end is obvious and forced, as is the planetarium allegory that ham-handedly attempts to impart some cosmic significance to the story. Ultimately Rebel Without a Cause is a moderately successful film interesting for the presence of James Dean, and in that sense it is worth viewing, but to make it out as something more is to vastly over-rate the film’s significance and under-rate the viewing audience’s intelligence.

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