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‘Rebel Without a Cause’ (4K review)

Warner Bros.

James Dean—the man, the myth, the legend. According to that legend, the ill-fated actor made only three movies before his death: East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant.

Not true. He was actually in seven feature films as well as more than 20 television shows, many of which have turned up on YouTube in recent years.

His first big screen starring role, however, came in Elia Kazan’s 1955 East of Eden. Dean played an angsty young man in what was, when it came right down to it, a historical soap opera.

Critics loved him and he was deemed, “Marlon Brando the Second.”

After that he made Rebel Without a Cause for maverick director Nicholas Ray.

Buzz being what it is, Dean was all over the gossip columns by the time East of Eden was released.

Rebel was already in the can and Dean was quickly cast in his next two films—Giant, and Somebody Up There Likes Me.

The former was a big ol’ overblown, sprawling Texas epic in which his method acting co-starred and conflicted with Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson with their more traditional film performances. Giant would not even be released until more than a year after James Dean’s accidental death in a car crash in September of 1955. Paul Newman would end up replacing him in Somebody Up There Likes Me.

It’s Rebel Without a Cause though, the middle film of Dean’s above-the-title trio, released posthumously a month after his headline-making demise, which remains not just the ultimate James Dean movie, but really, if one thinks about it, the only real James Dean movie.

Teenagers had always been problematic, both for the teens themselves and for adult society that just never knew how to deal with them. Growing pains have always been tough. For every idealized Harold Teen, Andy Hardy, or Henry Aldrich, there were always the Dead End Kids or the Little Tough Guys, doppelgangers of real-life teen boys familiar in so many urban areas throughout the US in the mid-20th century. Girls also had their issues. By the 1950s, juvenile delinquency was looked at not just as an anomaly but as a growing crisis. The US Senate even held hearings about it—yes, the ones where juvenile delinquency was blamed on comic books.

James Dean wasn’t a teenager in 1955. He was 24 years old and had survived a fairly traumatic youth of his own to emerge as a favorite of drama critics everywhere. He still had a youthful look, however, and, in Hollywood’s time-honored tradition, was cast as the lead teen in iconoclastic director Nicholas Ray’s follow-up to Johnny GuitarRebel Without a Cause.

The making of Rebel Without a Cause and its unique place in film history has been well-documented in a dozen different books and documentaries. But what about the movie itself? Is it any good or just remembered because of Dean? Does it hold up to modern eyes?

I hadn’t seen Rebel Without a Cause in about 40 years when I revisted it the other day.

We start out with Dean’s character, Jim Stark, taken in for drunkenness. He’s still feeling the effects of his evening, whooping it up a bit as we also meet young Plato (Sal Mineo) and Judy (Natalie Wood). One by one, Ray (played by Ed Platt, later Get Smart’s Chief), the juvenile officer, interviews them, setting up some backstory. It seems Plato has some issues and killed some puppies and it’s implied that Judy gets back at her father by being a bad girl out on the streets. Jim’s story is a bit more complex. It seems his family just moved to Los Angeles after he had trouble fitting in elsewhere. He loves his parents but has no respect left for his wimpy father (Jim Backus), domineering mother, and overpowering grandmother.

After these late night introductions, as I understood it, the rest of the picture all takes place in the span of one day. One long, eventful day. Jim tries to talk to his neighbor, Judy, recognizing her from the previous night. He offers to drive her to school on his first day but she prefers to go with a carful of rowdy boys. At school, he runs into Plato again, too, bullied and belittled, and Plato latches onto him as if he were Jim’s new sidekick. Throughout the course of a field trip that day, the bullies decide to beat up the new kid to show him who’s boss. Only Jim more than holds his own in a knife fight. It’s decided instead that Jim and the gang leader, Buzz, would do a “chickie run” that evening. Jim says he does them all the time, but then has to ask Plato what they are.

Everyone meets on a cliff by the ocean, with hot-rodded old cars provided. The idea is to race side by side toward the cliff and the one who jumps out of the car last, just before it rolls over the cliff to the rocks below, is the winner. Judy cheers on Buzz along with his cronies, leaving only Plato as Jim’s cheering section. We’re never really sure who would win in a fair “race,” though, as Buzz’s jacket gets caught and he’s unable to leap out at all, plunging to his death in the dark waters.

Judy is stunned and the rest of Buzz’s followers blame Jim for somehow causing it and make plans to “get him.”

From there, Jim, Judy, and Plato find themselves bonding, leading to a climactic scene at Griffith Observatory as Plato has a gun.

Watching it now, even being as familiar as I am with the period in which it’s made, the story itself feels slight, and the fact that it all unreels in one day feels unrealistic. Ray’s direction is on target, as is the top-notch cinematography, so the viewer is carried along, but afterwards, there’s a sense of, “Just exactly what just happened here?”

James Dean, of course, makes the movie, wearing his now iconic red jacket throughout much of the picture. That jacket works so well to visually define Jim Stark that it could almost be considered a character in the film, especially in the end when it becomes a major plot point. Even then, that all-important plot point is purposely signaled way back at the beginning of the picture.

Dean’s much-ballyhooed intensity is on view here just about the right amount, with his ability at more subtle acting actually ruling the day.

The other two leads were both considerably younger. At 17, Natalie Wood—admittedly never a favorite of mine—never looked cuter and sweeter than she does here, which works as a contrast to her conflicted character. Toward the end, though, Judy loses her edge and is just kind of there.

It’s 16-year-old Sal Mineo who wowed me most with his naturalistic acting style. Always a welcome presence in years to come, he would rarely have the chance again to really show what he could do, boiling under the surface with such seeming ease as here.

Both Sal and Natalie received Oscar nominations for Rebel Without a Cause but, astonishingly, James Dean did not.

Ed Platt as the sympathetic Juvie cop was a surprise. He always seemed likably one-note in his later TV roles but here, his character is ready and willing to give as good as he gets when Jim takes a swing at him.

Jim Backus, who once complained that he could play comedy on TV and in cartoons but that in movies, they always gave him dramatic parts, hits all the right notes as the henpecked husband and father. At one point, Jim does an imitation of his dad that sounds remarkably like Quincy Magoo.

Extras include commentary on the 4K disc, which is repeated on the accompanying Blu-ray. The Blu-ray also includes a feature length documentary, featuettes, screen and wardrobe tests, clips of behind the scenes, deleted scenes presented without audio and a trailer.

In the end, the message of the movie regarding disaffected youth not only feels dated but it seems as though it was a bit over-the-top for the time. That said, the performances, Ray’s assured direction, the camera work, the staging, the purposeful use of color and darkness, and the enduringly iconic look of James Dean in that simple red jacket, make Rebel Without a Cause a true classic.

Booksteve recommends!




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