During the 2017 holiday season, I got a great deal on the Best of Warner Bros. 100 Film Collection. Diane and I haven’t seen most of these movies, but we are committed to watching one a week and writing a short review.
After enjoying “East of Eden”, I was excited to finally see “Rebel Without A Cause” and more of James Dean. Like so many films on this list, “Rebel …” is a movie most have heard of but, as time goes by, few have seen. Now having watched it, we can safely say that it has aged very poorly.
The second film on our list to star James Dean, this 1955 picture follows Dean as Jim Stark, a moody teenager and the new kid in town. “Rebel Without A Cause” depicts teenage violence and criminality in a way that I imagine alarmed many people at the time. The film opens with three teenagers brought into a police station for unrelated reasons. Our protagonist, Jim, was arrested for public intoxication, Plato (played by Sal Mineo) for murdering puppies, and Judy (Natalie Wood) for a curfew violation.
Each teenager takes turns admitting their problems at home to Detective Ray (Edward Platt, who I recognized instantly as the Chief from television’s Get Smart). Jim is frustrated by his father (Jim Backus, who I also recognized instantly as Thurston Howell III from Gilligan’s Island) because he never stands up to Jim’s mother and the two always fight. Plato was abandoned by his father as a child and his mother is always away, so he is constantly in the care of the family maid. Judy is no longer treated like a little girl by her father and she feels ignored by him, so she finds different ways to act up in hopes of getting his attention.
All three teenagers are released. Despite only interacting with one another minimally while at the station, through the course of the following day, both at school and on a field trip, the three will meet one another, become friends, and fall in love. They will also be involved in a knife fight, an accidental suicide, breaking-and-entering, several murder attempts including a police officer, another breaking-and-entering, and one will lose their life to a police officer. It really is the busiest first day of school ever put to film.
To understand why we disliked “Rebel Without A Cause” it is important to first understand what made this film groundbreaking at the time and why I think many of its parts are still significant, even though the sum of those parts was severely lacking for us.
First, I found it fascinating that the movie depicts a disturbed teenager (Plato) who is ostracized and bullied by other kids, his extreme acts of violence are ignored (murdering puppies), and he is left with insufficient adult supervision and easy access to a gun which he is willing to use. This fascinated me because too often I feel like our culture depicts youth violence, especially gun violence, and to some extent bullying, as a post-Columbine problem. Clearly that is a mischaracterization if a movie in 1955 was already (and thankfully so) depicting this issue.
The movie’s depiction of teenage violence is most important to me because it is an easy argument against older generations that talk about surviving bullying like it’s a badge of honor and a rite of passage that all children should be required to go through, rather than helped to avoid. In the case of the accidental suicide, Jim, as the new kid at school, is challenged by Judy’s boyfriend Buzz to a game of chicken where the object is to drive a car at a cliff as fast as possible and jump out of said car as late as possible before it careens off into the water. Luckily, I was never challenged to such feats of strength and determination as a child, but if that is in any way a representation of the level of bullying in 1955, then I think we are all better getting as far away from that as humanly possible.
Second, though it is problematic, I enjoyed that “Rebel Without A Cause” tried to be about more than just moody teenagers and tried exploring some of the psychology as to why these teenagers were acting in antisocial, criminal, and horrible ways. Plato was under-explored, unfortunately, and Judy’s plot felt tacked-on, but I loved Jim’s reasoning. When contrasting the demeanor and persona Jim must adopt to survive “normal” teenage life with his father’s softer approach to confrontation, I fully understand Jim’s inability to reconcile his father’s position in their household with what the world keeps telling him a man should be. While the movie does little to depict the arguments of his parents in a way that justifies Jim’s feelings, it is an interesting example of a reality not yet able to come to terms with maleness and fatherhood as soft and supportive rather than brash, aggressive, and powerful.
Finally, there is James Dean himself. As mentioned in the “East of Eden” review, it is hard to judge James Dean, the cultural icon, for his acting ability on one performance alone. While obviously typecast in a similar role, Dean can hit several emotional high notes and its easier for us to understand the immense potential he had as a very young actor.
Now, with all of that said, “Rebel Without A Cause” was a disappointing film for us both. Knowing nothing about the plot before seeing it, the film has aged poorly and was one of the more frustrating movies we have seen in a long time. For instance, the movie takes place over a single night, but that night seems to stretch to the point that all believability is lost.
Further adding fuel to this fire, no one in this movie acts like a normal person. It felt like someone took the character intelligence from modern slasher movies and forced it into a teenage drama. For example, Buzz dies when he failed to jump out of his car, and all the teenagers drive off. Before Jim makes it back home afterward, the police have been notified and pictures of the accident have already appeared on the news, but when Jim admits to his parents that he was involved, they don’t support his need to come forward to the police because they want someone else to tell the police. It makes no sense and the Buzz story, much like his life in that car on that cliff, drops off almost instantly in favor of three of his goons (one is even named Goon and played by a very young Dennis Hopper) wanting to get Jim for ratting them out to the police. Of course, Jim did not get to tell the police because, like the puppy-murderer-releasing bastards that they are, they ignore troubled teen Jim when he comes to unburden himself.
Even the teenagers act erratically. Jim is a whirlwind of emotions, which is explained, but Judy falls in love with a boy she just met after her boyfriend careens off a cliff to his death in the same night. And Plato, by far one of the creepiest characters we have seen yet, was both disturbed and disturbing. If you have seen “The Room” and recall the neighbor kid of an ambiguous age who clings on to a couple far too closely, even in their bedroom with them, that is Plato exactly only somehow less creepy (and likely the basis for “The Room” character). Plato treats Jim like he is his dad. If the field of psychology was better defined at the time, then the writers of “Rebel Without A Cause” may have had enough to research and use in their script, but it just wasn’t there yet, and it shows in how the movie depicts these psychologically-weird character relationships.
There is a lot to enjoy about this movie and I mean no harm to its importance at the time, but the story is all over the place, the film needed to be edited for logic, and most of the topics and social commentary have been done better by more current media with a fuller understanding of child psychology. That’s not to discount how prescient this film was and remains. Even with its convolutions, there are important messages to extract from a movie like “Rebel Without A Cause” that are still relevant today. This movie isn’t far off from the phenomenon of something like Thirteen Reasons Why on Netflix or any other similar movie or television show that attempts to tackle topics that sadly and tragically go undiscussed or under discussed regarding teenagers. As much as I ended up hating watching this movie, I cannot hate that it exists.
For other reviews, make sure to check out the Warner Brother’s Top 100 Film’s page.