Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 51 min.

Release Date: October 29th, 1955 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Nicholas Ray Actors: James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Jim Backus, Ann Doran, Corey Allen, William Hopper, Rochelle Hudson, Dennis Hopper




n Easter day, underage Jim Stark (James Dean) is dragged into the juvenile division of the police station for plain old drunkenness. He’s not exactly disorderly, though lying in the middle of the street in a stupor requires some authoritative intervention. At the same precinct, 16-year-old Judy (Natalie Wood) is also having problems, but hers involve a widening distance from her father (which contains sexual undertones – a specific type of perturbation rarely seen on film, especially during the ‘50s). And just outside the office in which she’s being questioned is John Crawford (Sal Mineo), another wayward youth – one with much more serious psychological issues (spawned from abandonment): he shot a litter of puppies with a gun.

It’s unclear at first whether these dissidents are hopelessly disturbed or if they’re simply rebelling against authority figures. And counseling by a headshrink doesn’t seem like an easy solution, though that’s what they desperately need – someone with whom to talk about their feelings. Jim claims he can’t cope with conflicting information from his parents, but he’s mostly just crying out for attention, as his parents’ wealth and meaningless gifts tend to compensate for genuine affection. He’s confused, angry, and fed up with his family’s fake collaboration and constant bickering (chiefly during moments when his father is emotionally emasculated by his mother and grandmother); it’s like growing up in a circus. Meanwhile, Judy can’t understand why she shouldn’t behave coquettishly around her father – an uncomfortable, girlish playfulness that she’s greatly outgrown. Crawford, on the other hand, is deeply troubled, to the point that his perception of fantasy and reality occasionally merge.

Shortly after their encounter at the station, Jim grows nervous about his very first day at Dawson High School, where he’s pressured to conduct himself responsibly and choose friends wisely. He eyes Judy yet again, but she’s already situated in a clique of popular kids. As luck would have it, when the junior and senior classes take a field trip to the planetarium, Jim becomes the target of bully Buzz (Corey Allen), who happens to be Judy’s boyfriend. And in another unlikely coincidence, Crawford is the only person who offers Stark some cordiality. Dawson is an astonishingly tough school, demonstrated by Buzz slashing a tire on Jim’s car, before manipulating him into a switchblade fight.

“Life is crushing in on me.” These comparative attitudes are essentially manifested mental objections toward not fitting in among family and peers. In their minds, adults just don’t know how to behave around children; parents are overwhelming, smothering, and unsure of themselves. And youths in their same age group are always seeking contests of manliness or oneupmanship (such as a car race atop bluffs to see which driver will bail out of their vehicle first, before it careens off the ledge). “It’s just the age when nothing fits,” insists Judy’s mother (Rochelle Hudson). But the events depicted here feel inordinately extreme. Adolescence is hell.

“Rebel Without a Cause” isn’t the first picture to pervasively, repetitiously visualize this theme, but it made quite an impact upon its release. To audiences who don’t immediately connect with the rebellion and delinquency, the film becomes little more than an annoyingly blatant message about teenage defiance and demoralization; its potency is significantly dependent on nostalgia or a familiarity with the era. But for contemporary viewers, it was something unique, partly thanks to the convincing performances, but mainly due to the status of the characters. These aren’t financially deprived, societally neglected kids (though their familial support system is weak) – they’re middle-class or better, with plenty of options beyond the typical subjects of gangland disorder or dream-crushing impoverishment.

Nevertheless, the actions of both the adults and the children never come across as wholly realistic or believable. Instances of explosive disobedience are too severe, while moments of clowning around look too immature; there’s an unsubtle quality to their activities that serves the film’s thematic purpose far more than its sense of entertainment. Naturally conveying its commentary isn’t a strong point; abrasively ramming it down the throats of viewers appears to be an intentional design. The famous finale is similarly excessive – and perhaps more vague than hopeful – further cementing the notion that the only relief for some anguished adolescents is through greater chaos.

– Mike Massie

  • 4/10