Rebel Without a Cause
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One of the cinema's most enduring, masterfully- directed troubled-youth pictures, Rebel Without A Cause (1955) launched James Dean's career even as it signaled its abrupt end. Released just one month after Dean died in a car accident near Paso Robles, California at the age of 24, Rebel Without A Cause captured both the young star's astounding screen magnetism and tinderbox emotions, as well as the angst of an entire generation.
Rebel Without A Cause focused on a perpetually on-the-move family, the Starks, whose antidote to their son Jim's misbehavior is to move to another town. This pattern, of a family blaming teenagers for its own problems, was a theme repeated in the character of Judy (Natalie Wood), whose blossoming sexuality drives a wedge between her and her formerly doting
father. Judy in turns hangs with a pack of local hoodlums who challenge new-boy-in-the-hood Jim (James Dean) to a "chickie run" where one boy dies. Fleeing from the police, their families and their own demons, Judy, Jim, and the friendless loner Plato (Sal Mineo) form a substitute family and take refuge in an abandoned mansion until the film's dark, unforgettable conclusion.
Taking his cue from the current pop culture fixation with the juvenile delinquent, director Nicholas Ray found his inspiration for Rebel Without A Cause in the true account authored by Dr. Robert Lindner, of a young criminal being treated in Pennsylvania's Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary. But Ray went his own way when it came to adapting Lindner's tale of a teen sociopath to the screen, treating their problems with insight and empathy and investing his teenage characters with a greater emotional depth.
Ray claimed that he wanted Rebel Without A Cause to work beyond the juvenile delinquency newspaper headlines and films of the day, like The Wild One (1954). Instead, Ray strove for a classical tone, and claimed Romeo and Julie as inspiration, "the best play written about 'juvenile delinquents.'" Ray said.
Ray cast the then relatively unknown James Dean, who had distinguished himself in TV but had yet to make a mark in film (though his star-making performances in East of Eden (1955) and Giant (1956) were about to reach the screen), as the charismatic, vulnerable, terminally misunderstood teenager of the title. Natalie Wood, who has proven so enduringly luminous and tragic as Judy, was initially rejected for the role of Jim Stark's girlfriend because of her previous fame as a child star. But Ray soon changed his mind about Wood's goody two-shoes image when she was involved in a car crash with some other Hollywood hooligans like Dennis
Hopper, and convinced the director she was more than just a pretty face. The casting of Sal Mineo as the fragile, troubled Plato was equally fortuitous considering Mineo's own recent expulsion from his Bronx high school for running with some young toughs.
Ray and Dean shared not only a passion for "reefer" and a common past as struggling actors, but possessed a more uncommon spiritual affinity. Trusting in Dean's vision, Ray gave free rein to the actor to interpret the script as he saw fit and to improvise both acting and dialogue in the film. The cast often took its cues not from Ray, but from the Method-acting entranced Dean who later confessed that Rebel Without A Cause "used me up. I could never take so much out of myself again."
Ann Doran, who played Dean's mother in Rebel Without A Cause said, "Jimmy did most
of the directing. He gave us our lines; he dominated the entire thing." Dean and Ray's working relationship was equally bizarre. Ray often rehearsed with Dean at his Chateau Marmont bungalow, and felt the energy between them there was so powerful that he actually recreated his own living room on the set to inspire Dean.
Since its October 1955 release, Rebel Without A Cause has become one of the archetypal films of teenage angst, an enduring hit with successive generations and a harbinger of things to come in the tumultuous Sixties. The fact that all of the film's stars, Nick Adams, Dean, Wood and Mineo all died tragically and early has also lent a mystique to this powerful, groundbreaking film that continues to this day.
Director: Nicholas Ray
Producer: David Weisbart
Screenplay: Stewart Stern from an adaptation by Irving Shulman and a story by Nicholas Ray
Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Production Design: Malcolm C. Bert
Music: Leonard Rosenman
Cast: James dean (Jim), Jim Backus (Dad), Ann Doran (Mom), Virginia Brissac (Grandmother), Natalie Wood (Judy), William Hopper (Judy's Dad), Rochelle Hudson (Judy's Mother), Corey Allen (Buzz), Sal Mineo (Plato), Dennis Hopper (Goon), Nick Adams (Moose).
C-111m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Felicia Feaster