Rebel Without A Cause (1955) was the first James Dean film that I had ever seen. It’s also the movie that gave James Dean his status as an icon in popular culture.
Directed by Nicholas Ray, Rebel Without A Cause tells the story about three teenagers who come together after unfortunate circumstances and form their own version of a family to help cope with the troubles that they face with their own parents. Jim Stark (James Dean) is the new kid in town who doesn’t want any trouble but seems to run into it everywhere he goes. Judy (Natalie Wood) wants to have a relationship with her father like she did when she was little, however, her father can’t come to terms with the fact that she’s growing into a young woman. Plato (Sal Mineo) has been abandoned by both of his parents and suffers from psychological problems due to his isolation and neglect. The film plays out like a Greek tragedy, taking place all in one day with a dramatic ending.
The color red is very obviously prominent in this movie. Other than Dean’s iconic red jacket, the color is seen scattered throughout the movie. Judy is dressed all in red at the beginning of the movie. Jim’s tie that he’s wearing at the police station is red. One of the socks that Plato wears is red. When you watch the film, keep an eye open for all the red. Trust me when I say it’s not hard to miss.
The movie deals immensely with themes of isolation and alienation. All three of these characters have been isolated or alienated in some way: for Jim, he feels alienated from his parents, as well as his peers; Judy feels alienated from her father; Plato feels alienated from his peers as well as literally being neglected by his parents. His father is not a part of his life and his mother is always away, leaving him in the care of a nanny. His lack of parental figures is reason enough for the fact that he latches onto Jim and Judy as father and mother figures, especially Jim, whom he quite obviously adores.
The whole presentation in the planetarium about the inevitable destruction of the universe also enhances the themes, and enables us to relate to the characters and how they feel so small and alone in the world.
The three leads in the movie are terrific together. Natalie Wood is great to watch and she delivers an excellent performance. Sal Mineo is also great in his role, bringing a lot of emotion and heartbreak. The two were nominated for Best Supporting Actor/Actress at the Academy Awards.
James Dean, however, is what makes this movie so memorable. There is so much emotion in his performance as Jim Stark. From the opening scene of the film until the very end, he does an amazing job of perfecting Jim Starks’s character. His mannerisms and improvisations are still prevalent; they’re very small, like when he sticks a cigarette in his mouth upside down and Judy takes it out and places it back in the right way. He improvised the whole opening scene of the movie. He had great control of his body and the way he used it. And, God, the scenes where he tells his parents off!
An eerie fact about this movie is that the three leads all died in very tragic and violent ways. Sal Mineo was stabbed to death in 1976. Natalie Wood drowned in 1981. And James Dean was killed in a car accident in 1955.
Rebel Without A Cause is the movie that James Dean has been remembered for the most and it’s a shame that he didn’t live long enough to see how successful it became. It is the movie that immortalized him as the rebel in the red jacket who defined a whole generation of misunderstood youth.