Films about juvenile delinquency were not new in 1955, but earlier films on the subject, such as 'Angels with Dirty Faces' from the late thirties, and even others from the same period, such as 'Blackboard Jungle' which also came out in 1955, had tended to locate the problem among the urban poor of the slums. 'Rebel Without a Cause' is different in that it focuses on delinquency among the teenagers of an affluent middle-class community.
The film starts with a teenage boy named Jim Stark being arrested by the police for being drunk and disorderly and taken to the police station. His parents have recently moved to the area, and he is depressed because his parents move house frequently and he finds it difficult to make new friends. The school which he attends is dominated by a culture of swaggering masculine bravado and aggression. A premium is placed on displays of physical courage and on proving one's worth by fighting; the worst insult in this society is 'chicken'. Boys are expected to fit in with the prevailing ethos in order to gain the respect of their peers and to stand a chance of getting a girlfriend. Although Jim longs for friendship and acceptance, he is also skeptical of this ethos, which makes him something of an outsider. He quarrels with Buzz, the leader of the 'in-crowd', who accuses him of being a 'chicken'. Jim feels forced to prove his courage against Buzz, first in a knife-fight, and then in a 'Chickie Run', a ritualised test of nerve which involves driving stolen cars as close as possible to the edge of a cliff before jumping out. During the latter Buzz is killed when he is unable to escape from his car in time; it is Jim's feelings of guilt arising from this incident, and the desire of Buzz's friends for revenge, which provoke the film's tragic climax.
Although much of the comment about this film has concentrated on the charismatic figure of Dean, the film is not just about Jim. It has at its heart a triangular relationship between Jim and two other teenagers, Judy and Plato, all of whom can be seen as a rebels- 'without a cause' in the sense that they are not motivated by any political or social ideal, but also 'with a cause' in the sense that there is a reason why they act as they do. Nevertheless, in each case the cause of their revolt is subtly different. Each has been brought up in a different way. Jim's parents are kindly and liberal, but are too indulgent. His father, in particular, is well-meaning but weak, unable to provide his son with intelligent advice or with a role-model of manliness.
Plato (whose real name is John, but who prefers to be called by his nickname, which suggests his intellectual nature) is a strange, lonely boy. Our first view of him is at the police station, where he has been arrested for shooting some puppies. We do not learn any more about this incident, but what we hear is enough to suggest that Plato is emotionally disturbed. Plato's parents are separated; he never sees his father and his mother is frequently absent, leaving him to be brought up by an elderly maidservant. The shy, bookish Plato makes no attempt to fit in with the other students, who look down on him, but he sees Jim as a fellow-outsider and befriends him. I felt that there were hints that Plato is sexually attracted to Jim and jealous of his growing friendship with Judy, but in the moral climate of the fifties these hints could not be fully developed. (If my theory is correct, Plato's nickname may also have ironic overtones, Plato being the philosopher who advocated sexless 'platonic' love between males).
Whereas Jim's parents are over-liberal and Plato's absent, Judy's are cold and authoritarian. Unlike the boys, she starts off as a member of the 'in-crowd', as she is Buzz's girlfriend, but after Buzz's death a romance develops between Jim and herself.
The main theme of the film is the choice between the desire to conform to accepted values and the desire to rebel by finding one's own individual ones, a choice that seems particularly acute in one's teenage years. The film suggests that this choice is more complex than might be thought. Although the students are rebellious in the sense that they scorn the more peaceful values of adult life, they are also deeply conformist in the sense that they will tolerate no deviation from their own values. Jim, Judy and Plato can be seen as rebels against not only the older generation but also against the values of their contemporaries. Even Buzz, as much as Jim or Plato, can be seen as a victim of the students' system of values. A more attractive side to his character is shown in the scenes before the fateful 'chickie run' where he and Jim discover a respect, even a liking for one another; certainly, neither wishes any harm to befall the other, but for reasons of honour neither feels able to withdraw from their ritual duel.
Throughout the film there is an atmosphere of heightened emotion- it has not one, but two, emotional climaxes, the 'chickie run' and the final scene where Jim, Judy and Plato are hiding in the planetarium from Buzz's friends and from the police. It is a film that needs fine acting, both to convey this emotional atmosphere and to do justice to its ambitious theme. Fortunately, all three leads are equal to the task. Sal Mineo as Plato and Natalie Wood as Judy are both good, but James Dean is better than good, making the anguished figure of Jim come vividly alive. Although Dean was twenty-four at the time, several years older than the supposed age of his character, he was brilliant at portraying a tormented adolescent. It is strange that he did not receive a 'Best Actor' Oscar nomination. He was, of course, nominated for his role in 'East of Eden'. (Is there a rule which prevents the same actor from being nominated twice in one year?) Some of the supporting cast are also excellent, particularly Jim Backus as Jim's weak but well-meaning father, and Corey Allen, who resists the temptation to play Buzz simply as an arrogant hooligan.
'Rebel Without a Cause' is, in my view, one of the best films of the fifties and probably the best-ever film about adolescence and 'coming of age'. I am surprised it has not made your top 250 films and that it was not nominated for 'Best Picture'. 10/10.
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