This week in films I should have seen, I watched the 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause.
Starring James Dean in probably his most memorable role, it’s about a rebellious young man with a troubled past on his first twenty four hours in a new town, and finding friends and enemies.
It’s been highly praised world-wide since it’s release for it’s accurate portrayal of loneliness, anger and frustration mirrored those of post-war teens.
It’s a lot less quaint than your average old movie. It’s pretty gritty in fact, tackling real social issues and honesty. It’s not glamourised in any way really – apart from the cinematic score, it’s very real from start to finish.
It really does feel like a much more advanced, ahead of it’s time film that really represents a shift in cinema. I really believe that.
James Dean is forever etched into history as Jim Stark, in what was his only top-billed role. He is an incredible character: all the charm and charisma of Grease’s Danny Zuko, but with much more openly complex and honest feelings.
This would actually be James Dean’s final role: he died in a car accident just a month shy of this film’s release. This role really proves what an extraordinary method actor. The now famous opening scene was improvised by Dean after the production had been shooting for nearly twenty four hours straight: Dean asked Nicholas Ray to roll the camera so that he could do something; and Ray obliged.
The appeal with Dean is how relatable he is to an audience – of the fifties and of today even. There’s something he possesses which is very rare quality to find that just makes him understandable, almost like he’s someone you can trust implicitly.
He truly was incredibly talented. And God he really is just a dreamboat isn’t he?
Natalie Wood is a tour de force as Judy, who first appears in a tearful state at the police station about ten minutes into the film and leaves a lasting impression. Judy could easily be seen a bratty schoolgirl; but I think she’s actually a brilliant example of a confused, lost teenage girl. It is mad being a teenager, and it’s an easy thing to be stereotyped in film – but it is very authentic here.
I think, as with all the main roles, it was a true collaboration between the writing and Wood in creating that.
The absolute sweetheart in this film however, is undoubtably Sal Mineo as Plato. Plato is Stark’s so called best friend, a sweet yet deeply troubled boy with many repressed issues. Mineo is pretty perfect: he manages to play this adorable young boy with a heart of gold and a head full of issues without stereotype or naivety. It’s clear he approached the role with a great deal of care.
In a 2005 article in Vanity Fair magazine, it was revealed by Sam Kashner that director Nicholas Ray, screenwriter Stewart Stern, costar James Dean and Sal Mineo himself all intended for Plato to be gay. At the time of course, the mention of homosexuality was still very much forbidden under the Production Code; so all four men worked together to insert incredibly subtle references to Plato’s homosexuality and subsequent attraction to Jim. If you watch closely, you can see these: some examples include the pinup photo of Alan Ladd on Plato’s locker door; Plato’s adoring looks at Jim and even the name “Plato,” named after the classical Greek philosopher Plato, who is widely understood by scholars to have been homosexual.
In the mansion scene, Mineo was instructed by Dean that Plato should “look at me the way I look at Natalie.”In fact, the film was originally going to contain a kiss between James Dean and Sal Mineo.
All that being known – it could be said that Sal Mineo was the first Oscar nominee for playing an LGBT character. Which is phenomenal, given the time.
There’s a few supporting characters with great performances given by the actors who played them: most notably; Jim Backus and Ann Doran as Jim’s parents – an odd pair that give that sense of being stifled and misunderstood by your parents very effectively; Corey Allen as bully Buzz Gunderson and Marietta Canty as one of the best , and least undermined maid’s in film history – never mind of the fifties.
Rebel Without a Cause has a very basic plot, allowing for clever dialogue and incredible acting to shine in place of a complex storyline. The scene of the three leads exploring the abandoned mansion and having a laugh is really wonderful, the script is excellent and the actors bouncing off each other makes the whole thing come alive.
The cinematography is occasionally experimental which I wasn’t expecting, and it is really cool. It was filmed in the then recently introduced CinemaScope format, and I think it took real advantage of utilising that in the most impressive ways. And wow, I just love the colouring in old movies
The locations are stunning too: of course, the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles being the most famous one – it was even referenced in 2016’s La La Land.
The score, like I said, is very cinematic and intense at times, and is one of the only consistent things throughout the film that actually remind you of the period it was made it.
Of course – the costumes are also iconic. Ask anyone about James Dean, and they’ll remember him in that white T-shirt and red jacket. He looked so damn cool. It had a massive impact too – T-shirt sales soared after the film’s release; and even today the look lingers. Does Fry’s outfit in Futurama look familiar to you?
I can understand the legacy this film ended up having. It’s rare for a film to some seventy odd years on still genuinely wow you, and that’s what it did to me today.
It’s one to see, for sure. If you’re a cinema fan, then you can’t deny the catalyst this film became for films we still see today.