by Brian E. Wilson
“YOU’RE TEARING ME APART!!!!”
I have seen Rebel Without a Cause several times with an audience and this famous line, yelled with great anger and frustration by James Dean’s misunderstood character Jim Stark at his elders, brings about a wide variety of reactions. When I saw the movie in a college film studies class in the 1980s, my snarky peers chuckled and laughed at it, later calling Dean’s emotional line delivery campy and over-the-top. Surprised that this guy presented as the epitome of cool on merchandise such as posters, postcards, and calendars (that still sell well today, along with Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe nostalgia) could be capable of losing his cool so dramatically, many in the class dismissed him. Also, in the ’80s, I am sure many were also giddy with the fact that Jim Backus (known mostly as Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island) plays Jim’s meek father. What they didn’t seem to notice is that Backus gives a effective performance in the role, and that Dean plays off him beautifully.
Yet at a packed screening in a revival house in the early ’00s, the “You’re Tearing Me Apart” moment led to a gasp and then stunned silence. The rawness of the moment still startles. People attending the screening obviously had the ability to transport themselves back to when this movie was initially released. In 1955, Jim Stark’s explosion of confusion must have struck a nerve with a generation disillusioned with their parents. I wrote an essay for this series on Stand by Me (#62) and I was alive when that film came out and could write from experience about what impact that film had at the time of its release. For Rebel, I wasn’t, so over the years I have listened to and read anecdotes and comments of family members, friends, instructors, critics, and others who caught the film at the time of its release. Many said it struck a chord and that Jim finally said with deep emotion what many teenagers wanted to say.
Also, at the time of its release (October 27, 1955), Dean’s fans were mourning his very recent death (September 30, 1955). He died at the age of 24 in a car accident. He lived to see only one of his films, 1955’s East of Eden with his brilliant Oscar nominated performance, play in theaters. So watching Dean’s Jim Stark experience emotional turmoil in Rebel must have been painful for his many young fans.
Stark’s outburst would echo and resonate in subsequent films about teen bewilderment and angst. Although there certainly had been juvenile delinquent films before its release (most notably 1937’s Dead End, 1938’s Angels with Dirty Faces, and 1953’s The Wild One), Rebel, and another 1955 drama The Blackboard Jungle, kicked the door open for a wide variety of juvenile delinquent films (mostly exploitation) in the late 1950s with such fantastic titles as High School Confidential! (a guilty pleasure of mine), Young and Dangerous, Reform School Girl, The Young Stranger, and Robert Altman’s bluntly titled 1957 low budget drama The Delinquents (one of Altman’s very first films was also a 1957 documentary about Dean called The James Dean Story, co-directed with George W. George).
Jim’s rage could later be heard in Splendor in the Grass, West Side Story, The Graduate, Ordinary People, The Great Santini, The Breakfast Club, and even in current films like The Spectacular Now and Whiplash (and heck, why not, even The Hunger Games), among countless others. You can hear his cry of anguish in almost every YA novel going back to S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. And even further back: Jim Stark and contemporary Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye probably would have found some common ground if they had met and hung out in the mid-1950s. When I read current YA novels I see traits of Jim and/or Holden in most of the ticked off, nihilistic male leads. You can feel his rage in rock music, especially punk (Bryan Waterman’s book, part of the great 33 1/3 series, about Television’s landmark punk 1977 album Marquee Moon name checks Rebel as an influence and mentions that Nicholas Ray was a fan of the band). And Jim’s teen rage can be felt on stage in the Green Day musical American Idiot and the puppet comedy Hand to God, the latter of which handily blames a devil-possessed puppet for teen rage gone horrifyingly, and yet hilariously, awry.
Yet what’s interesting about Jim Stark is he doesn’t want the older generation to leave him alone. He wants a real connection with his father, for his father to stand up for him, to defend him, to stop running away. In an enlightening extra called “Rebel without a Cause: Defiant Innocents” on Warner Bros.’ 2 Disc 2005 reissue of Rebel, screenwriter Stewart Stern admits that he essentially turned Jim into a semi-autobiographical character: that he had a placating father who tried to make everyone happy, and that his mother, in his eyes, didn’t treat dad with respect. So he has Jim do what he felt he couldn’t do: act out, yell angry things at his elders, and engage in self-destructive behavior. I can imagine that people watching Rebel today might be surprised by what angers Jim: that his father seems too nice, that he wears–GASP!–an apron (based on another anecdote from Stern’s life according to the interview–nowadays dads happily wear aprons). Jim’s anger about his father is actually old-fashioned, based on traditional views of what a man should be and how a father should behave. Personally, I think it’s gratifying that the dad doesn’t heed Jim’s advice and resort to violence, that dad sticks to his moral code. The film doesn’t paint all of its adult characters as buffoons or creeps, and that’s part of its strength. And part of Jim’s anger is caused by being frustrated with himself, causing problems, causing the family to always move. But still: why should they follow mom’s advice and keep running? Jim angrily wonders.
Quick observation though: If Jim Stark’s story had been a rock and roll song, it would probably be Sonny Curtis’ penned-in-1960-made-famous-by-Bobby Fuller classic “I Fought the Law” with its punchline “and the law won.” Still sounding badass even with the rebel admitting vulnerability. Later, punk band The Clash would happily change the lyrics to “I fought the law…and I won.” But I digress.
Rebel Without a Cause is far from a perfect movie. And yet I love it, not just because of Nicholas Ray’s masterful direction, but because of the emotional roller coaster ride. Full disclosure: when asked what my favorite movie is, I instantly declare that it’s a toss-up between Alfred Hitchcock’s absolutely brilliant Rear Window and Rebel. It’s a messy film despite Ray’s remarkable control of the frame. Mostly the mess comes from the screenplay (IMDb credits: screenplay by Stern, adapted by Irving Shulman, from a story by Nicholas Ray) which tackles many Big Issues and many Societal Concerns, all the while having major life changes and events occur in a story that lasts only 24 hours. Bullying, death, family turmoil, hero worship, the Atomic Age, parental neglect, the pratfalls of masculinity, raging hormones, the end of mankind–of course things are going to get a little out of control. A young woman’s boyfriend dies. She’s dating someone else a little while later. Hey, life moves fast sometimes. The movie has the tone of a melodrama, a classical tragedy, and an opera (according to Stern, Ray said that teenagers’ lives ARE operatic, that 24 hours can be a lifetime). All the while, Ray has something potent to say about the anger bubbling under the surface of 1950s-era middle-class families, shattering the myth of suburban bliss. He would continue this subversive view of this world in his next feature, the stunning and audacious 1956 Bigger Than Life which still has the most shocking line I have heard in a movie (“God Was Wrong”…one upping “You’re Tearing Me Apart”).
Judging from its reputation, Rebel seems like it should have rock music kick off the action, the way The Blackboard Jungle did earlier in 1955 (Bill Haley and the Comets’ hit single “Rock Around the Clock” famously plays during the opening credits there), but instead Leonard Rosenman’s sweeping, tense orchestral score fills the air, perfectly building the tension and creating the classical mood Ray wishes to create. Throughout the movie, Rosenman would also sneak some jazz onto the soundtrack. The teens even listen to jazzy instrumentals on the radio (tormenting each other with ominous radio dedications meant to say “you’re in trouble daddy-o”). Even though Rebel stars three young actors, it serves as a cautionary tale for the parents in the audience. The movie warns us: this scenario is happening in homes and communities all around our nation–and it could happen in your home!!! The movie’s tagline seems directed at adults worried about their offspring, in all caps: “…AND THEY BOTH CAME FROM GOOD FAMILIES!!!!” Reportedly, Ray researched stories about juvenile delinquency, discovered that many cases were occurring in middle-class communities, and wanted the film to reflect this. What’s interesting is by the end though, the movie tells the teens in the audience to give their parental units a break, that they are only human, too. Jim becomes a surrogate father for a troubled boy named Plato (the excellent, haunting Sal Mineo, 16 at the time) and fails to protect him, leading to tragedy. Jim learns a hard lesson about what being a father entails, that it’s not easy by a long shot.
Like a lot of 1950s films about social issues, Rebel without a Cause begins by announcing itself in a very dramatic manner. So many films today don’t even have opening credits, but wow, back in the 1950s, opening credit scenes would reach out, grab and shake you. We see the drunken new teen in town Jim lying on the sidewalk at night, among garbage and litter, reaching for a discarded cymbal-banging toy monkey. The words Rebel without a Cause fill the screen in bold red letters (the color Red very important in this movie, one that reportedly was almost shot in black & white but changed to color and widescreen when Warner Bros. realized they had a possible prestige film with a hot new star). The brilliantly blocked opening sequence in the police station introduces the other two teens, Judy (the wildly expressive Natalie Wood, shattering her sweet child star image with this role) and Plato, both heading down the path of juvenile delinquency, who will become a major part of Jim’s life over the next 24 hours. Judy’s red coat and lipstick jump off the screen. Red unites these three lead characters–Jim later with his iconic red jacket, Plato with his one mismatched red sock.
Jim’s parents and grandmother show up to claim him (and he yells his aforementioned famous line at them), as does Plato’s caring African-American nanny (dad has died, mom has ditched him). Judy panics when she hears her mother (not her father–more on this later) will be picking her up. Skillful cinematographer Ernest Haller’s camera glides from one character to the next, in and out of offices separated by glass (great art/production design by Malcolm C. Bert and set decoration by William Wallace), as we learn about what trouble these teens have caused: Jim’s drunkenness, Judy hanging out late at night dressed in a manner not considered appropriate, and Plato, well, he shot some puppies. I’m not kidding. He shot puppies. The film puts the viewer on edge because these three characters are not angelic innocents. They seem capable of real destruction (if not to others, then to themselves), with Jim saying that his father should haul off and strike his domineering mother for once, Judy seemingly obsessed with throwing her life away because of daddy issues, and with Plato, well, who knows what destruction he could possibly cause.
And yet Dean, Wood, and Mineo manage to make these troubled characters compelling and sympathetic. Dean exudes charisma as Jim. Many find him mannered, but I find him endlessly inventive and unpredictable. He writhes, contorts, and pushes things to the limit at times, becoming teen angst personified, and his work emerges as an unforgettable tour de force. And yet in quieter moments, he breaks your heart with his hurt eyes and vulnerability. Wood does exceptionally well playing a young woman who hangs with the bad boys to get back at her father. In one of the movie’s most uncomfortable scenes, Judy tries to be affectionate with her father by kissing him (first on the lips) and he jolts the audience by slapping her, telling she’s being completely inappropriate. Judy reacts to this by being as reckless as possible, hanging out with a rough crowd, dating the gang leader Buzz (Corey Allen, in a strong, underappreciated performance) who will make life miserable for Jim at school. There’s a hunger in Wood’s eyes as she plays Judy, the same hunger she would bring to her work in 1961’s Splendor in the Grass. Mineo, meanwhile, completely loses himself in the role of Plato, thoroughly conveying the character’s delusional behavior. He excels at playing someone who completely idolizes and is crushed out on Jim, seeing this guy he has just met as his best friend. Then he views him as a father figure. Mineo brings real pain to this role–you don’t know where the actor ends and the character begins.
The movie flows from set piece to memorable set piece. The scene at Judy’s breakfast table has not just the rejected kiss, but a moment where her younger brother pulls out a toy gun and yells “It’s the Atomic Age!!!” Ratatattat. The creepy field trip sequence to the Planetarium (the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles with its classical architecture) has the teens at first heckling the instructor but then freaking out when he discusses the end of mankind, accompanied by a flash of light that drives Plato under his chair. No wonder these teens feel a sense of doom and gloom about their fates–the Atomic Age, the Death of Man hang over their heads.
Ray does exceedingly well with the action scenes in the film, intense enough to still earn the movie a PG-13 rating by the MPAA. The knife fight scene outside the Planetarium between Jim and Buzz packs a wallop thanks to William H. Ziegler’s and (uncredited) Jame Moore’s razor sharp editing. Probably the most memorable sequence is the Chicken sequence in which the two rivals square off again (after realizing, in a surprisingly touching scene, that they do like each other and could be friends). This time, they will see who can race closest to the edge of a cliff in a car before jumping out. Probably in her most thrilling moment on screen, Wood’s Judy thoroughly radiates dangerous recklessness as she tells the crowd to get ready for this spectacle. Jim checks his car door to see if he has an easy out; Buzz does not. The camera pulls back from Judy in a deranged manner, and then the contest begins with Judy standing in between the cars while they zoom past her, a look of ecstasy on her face. What an effective bit of direction follows, each edit causes the heart to race more: cuts to Plato crossing his fingers and then turning away with fear, Jim inside his car, Buzz inside his, Buzz realizing too late that his jacket is caught on the handle and he cannot escape, Jim realizing that it’s okay to bail and jump out of his automobile, Buzz’s car sailing over the cliff and crashing below…with Buzz still inside it.
After Buzz dies, the crowd quickly disperses, leaving Jim, Judy, and Plato behind, and a surrogate family forms. In a beautifully blocked moment, Jim reaches his hand out to Judy who still stares at the wreckage below, and she reaches back for his hand. Plato stands in the background watching, and the three actors make a near-perfect triangle on the screen. All hell breaks loose soon after with the three then returning to their respective homes, panicking, Jim asking for help (and getting into a rather shocking fight with dad that has you wondering if Dean hurt Jim Backus when he knocked him over that chair), Judy running away, Plato tormented by three of Buzz’s gang members (one of them a truly scary young Dennis Hopper) before running into his house and finding a gun. Without overdoing things, Ray and cinematographer Haller do some creative things with the camera–tilting it in a disorienting manner that throws the viewer off balance.
In one of the most justly celebrated sequences in the movie, Jim, Judy, and Plato end up in a broken down mansion. They find some momentary peace there, and there’s even a moment of levity with the three pretending to be their parents (Dean does a hilarious Jim Backus impression) buying the dilapidated house. Plato soon naps, and the other two go off exploring the mansion, which leads to a sweet scene where they realize that they now love each other. However, the three gang members arrive, and another expertly shot fight scene follows with Plato trying to protect himself against them. He shoots one of them and the movie becomes a rather protracted showdown with Plato running back to the Planetarium, hiding there, while the cops (led by an Officer Friendly type, inevitably played by the great Edward Platt) surround the building. Dean has some of his best acting moments after Jim goes into the Planetarium and convinces Plato to stop hiding. All the while, Plato hurls accusations of neglect at him, basically calling him a neglectful parent. When Plato finally rises up behind Jim, who is facing the other direction, it always manages to surprise and chill me even though I have seen the film so many times. Dean plays this whole scene with tenderness and heart, offering Plato his red jacket for warmth and comfort. Mineo also beautifully conveys Plato’s mix of child-like trust and fear, which makes the inevitable tragic ending all the more heartbreaking.
Every time I watch Rebel I always hope things will end differently. However, tragedy wins out: Jim and Judy bring Plato to the Planetarium’s door, a cop sees Plato’s gun and panics (not knowing Jim has removed the bullets) and fires. The camera tilts as Plato dies and falls to the ground. Now here things become a little problematic, even if you love Rebel without a Cause. Still, loving a movie means you have to accept its flaws. Dean does a good job expressing Jim’s anguish (although his laugh when he sees Plato’s one red sock is a little much). However, at the very end, when Jim introduces his parents to Judy and says she’s a friend, and Jim’s parents exchange “thank heavens” looks and smile, well, it seems a little off to me, feels too pat. Why end with them?
Despite these reservations, I still think Rebel Without a Cause is a great film packed with many fascinating scenes, and opened to so many different interpretations. The shocking death of Plato at the end of Rebel reminds me of a lot of 1970s movies that end with the surprising deaths of main or beloved secondary characters (I would list them, but I don’t want to spoil any of them).
Of course, any extended post about Rebel needs to mention the fact that not just Dean died too young and tragically. Sal Mineo, who would receive a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor nomination for Rebel and another one for 1960’s Exodus, had some chart success as a pop singer in the 1950s, and then later as a theater director and actor in the ’60s and ’70s. In 1976, Mineo died at the age of 37 after being stabbed outside of his apartment building. Natalie Wood, nominated for Supporting Actress for Rebel, would also receive Lead nominations for 1961’s Splendor in the Grass, and 1963’s Love with a Proper Stranger. She appeared in many acclaimed films such as The Searchers, West Side Story, and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. In 1981, she died at the age of 43 after she fell off a boat and drowned. Dennis Hopper once joked (rather morbidly) on a late night TV show that he couldn’t believe James, Sal, Natalie, and co-star Nick Adams were gone, while he himself still lived after doing many reckless things to himself…sometimes involving dynamite.
James Dean remains the only actor to receive two posthumous Best Actor Oscar nominations. The Academy chose his work in East of Eden over Rebel for the 1955 Oscars (either performance is worthy), and then nominated him again the next year for George Stevens’ epic Giant. He didn’t win either time, but it didn’t matter: his place in Hollywood Film History is more than secure.
When I watched Rebel Without a Cause again for this essay, I did so on DVD, not on the big screen. And yet even on a small screen, the film still feels Big with Big Emotions and Big Themes. It roars off the screen. I am amazed how Nicholas Ray with his expert team of technicians and his actors capture the speed and energy of teen characters on the edge. The movie soars from one moment to next. The supporting cast shines. James Dean, with his wounded charisma, Natalie Wood, with her raw wide-open emotions, and Sal Mineo, with daring conviction, still make an indelible, unforgettable team, giving this tragic cautionary tale their all. Dean’s inventive, passionate performance still can tear you apart.