Rebel Without a Cause

Reviewed By Elaine Perrone
Posted 10/18/04 23:16:55

"Teach your parents well. Their children's hell will slowly go by."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT SEATTLE LESBIAN & GAY FILM FESTIVAL 2004: In 1955, the year Nicholas Ray's "Rebel Without A Cause" was released, James Dean's future as a major star working with the cream-of-the-crop of Hollywood directors seemed assured. Earlier that year, he had created a sensation in his first major role as Cal Trask in "East of Eden" under the direction of Elia Kazan. Still later that year, he turned in a powerhouse performance as Jett Rink in "Giant," helmed by George Stevens. Sadly, he was killed when his Porsche Spyder collided with another vehicle in September 1955, before either "Rebel" or "Giant" even appeared in theatres.

By the time "Rebel" hit the big screen, Natalie Wood was a seasoned veteran who had started her career as a toddler in 1943 and moved on to substantial supporting roles by 1947, appearing in both "Miracle on 34th Street" and "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" that year at the age of nine. Besides "Rebel," Wood's most notable performance was as Maria in "West Side Story," and her star continued to rise throughout the '60s. In the ensuing years she enjoyed a respectable reputation and found gainful employment up to the time she drowned in 1981 at the young age of 43.

The third in the film's trio of leads, Sal Mineo, was a star of notable stature in the '50s and '60s, receiving "Best Supporting Actor" nominations for his turns in "Rebel" in 1955 and "Exodus" in 1960. He was murdered, at the age of 37, in 1976.

If they were alive today, all three would be in their sixties, very likely still enjoying careers as well-regarded character actors. Ironically, the only member of the cast of "Rebel" to be in that position now was at the time a bit player, and something of a hell-raiser in his own right: Dennis Hopper.

The storyline, which takes place over a period of about 24 hours, opens in the wee hours after an Easter Sunday in a police station, where the three principals first cross paths. Jim Stark (Dean) has been hauled in for "plain drunkenness" after being found lying on a sidewalk in a stupor, cradling a wind-up toy monkey. Judy (Wood), picked up while wandering the streets at 1:00 a.m., is circumspectly asked by Ray Fremick, a sympathetic policeman (Edward C. Platt), if she had been "looking for company." The 16-year old tearfully tells him that she has run away from home after her father called her a "dirty tramp." The third teen, John "Plato" Crawford (Mineo), is being detained for questioning, and counseling, after shooting to death a litter of puppies. Left in the custody of a housekeeper (Marietta Canty) by the parents who have essentially abandoned him, Plato cries out in response to Ray's strong suggestion that he seek psychiatric help, "No one can help me!"

When Jim's parents (Jim Backus, Ann Doran) arrive to collect him, they quickly begin bickering loudly -- their usual method of communicating with each other. When his father playfully defends "Jimbo" for taking what he terms "a little drink," and his mother lashes back, we learn the crux of Jim's turmoil: He wants, just once, for his weak father to stand up to his overbearing mother, and he is deathly afraid of becoming a "chicken" like his old man. The term "chicken" so badly sets him off, in fact, that it has caused him to mess guys up in the many cities in which his family has lived. His mother's response, each time he gets into a fight, is to move house, which means he has never been able to make long-term friends.

On his first day at his new school, Jim is taunted by the senior class "wheels," of which Judy is a member. When her boyfriend Buzz Gunderson (Corey Allen) provokes him with the "chicken" epithet, Jim quickly moves to defend his honor, first in a knife fight and then in a "chickie-run" in stolen cars across a treacherous bluff. When Buzz becomes trapped in his car, which goes sailing over the cliff, Jim is consumed by guilt and Buzz's friends by their desire for revenge. The three new friends, Jim, Judy, and Plato, are at once set on a course that leads to even further tragedy.

Like many of the dramas of the period, the acting in "Rebel" is highly stylized, with the exception of Jim Backus' brilliantly subdued portrayal of Frank Stark, browbeaten husband and concerned but ineffectual parent. The sexual attraction of Plato to Jim, which seems obvious today, is glossed over, as is any suggestion that the behavior of Judy's father, played by William Hopper, might be motivated by his own confliction over his daughter's burgeoning sexuality. Still, the film remains a beautifully rendered, powerful, and highly relevant study of disenfranchised teenagers and their dysfunctional families. Deeply controversial in its time, "Rebel" was a groundbreaker that paved the way for the likes of "American Graffiti," "Stand by Me," "River's Edge," and "Donnie Darko," among many other films of the genre.

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