All classics are not necessarily timeless. For every Citizen Kane that dazzles us with its groundbreaking technique, for every In a Lonely Place that devastates us with emotional and psychological complexity that’s only grown more resonant, there are films that are defined by their moment, and that helped define their moment, but don’t live all that well outside of them. And this is entirely acceptable; it’s a difficult enough job to pull a narrative together, marshaling the backbreaking elements of a major motion picture production, that we cannot expect every director to also be a soothsayer.
Rebel Without a Cause is such a film. A quintessential piece of 1950s cinema (perhaps the quintessential piece of 1950s cinema) it demands to be seen entirely though that lens – and through that of its star, James Dean, whose tragic death less than a month before its release made it more than a movie from its first unspooling. The live-fast-die-young outcome of its star meant it could never be something as simple as storytelling; it was, from 1955 forward, myth-making.
He makes a memorable first impression, sprawled on the pavement, drunk and disheveled. He’s brought in to the police station, a scene which serves dual functions: we learn about him (his name is Jim Stark, and he’s new in town), and we meet the other Troubled Teens we’ll spend the movie with. Judy (Natalie Wood) is hanging out with the wrong crowd and wearing revealing outfits, mostly to get the attention of her father (“And he called me… he called me a dirty tramp!” she cries. “My own father!”). And Plato (Sal Mineo) has been all but abandoned by his parents, spending all of his time with the housekeeper and sending up giant red flag cries for help (he’s at the police station for shooting a litter of puppies).
We also meet Jim’s dysfunctional family: a simpering father, grouchy mother, and battle ax grandmother. “We just moved here, understand, and the kid hasn’t got any friends,” explains his father (Jim Backus, better known to later generations as The Millionaire on Gilligan’s Island). We get the feeling that the family is new in town because of Jim’s troubles fitting in wherever they were previously; “You coulda gone to juvenile hall,” a (comparatively) sympathetic cop warns him, to little effect. That’s what you want, isn’t it?” Desperate to lash out, and with the cop’s encouragement, Jim just beats the hell out of a desk.
Jim is suffused with the kind of middle-class suburban ennui that was uncommon in ‘50s movies, though it would become a teen movie cliche in years to come. That borderline-nihilism moves from micro to macro when Jim’s class goes on a field trip to the Griffith Observatory, where a planetarium puts their problems into perspective; the earth and its activities are “of little consequence,” the teens are told, and “in all the immensity of our universe and the galaxies beyond, the earth will not be missed.”
With such concerns weighing (perhaps disproportionately) on their minds, a devil-may-care attitude pervades. Taunted by the slightly menacing teens of the school where he’s already an outcast, Jim is taunted into participating in a “chicky run,” a death-risking drag race, and when he asks the reasonable question, “Why do we do this,” the reply is similarly simple: “You gotta do something, now don’t you?” The carpe diem of it all isn’t merely for matters of life and death, however; later, when Jim kisses Judy on the forehead, and she asks why he did, he replies, simply, “Felt like it.”
His offhand delivery of a line like that makes it clear that the contemporaneous comparisons of Dean to his most obvious acting ancestor, Marlon Brando, weren’t mere hype. It’s a performance of fierce naturalism, matched beat by beat by his effortless cool – few figures onscreen have looked as magnificent with a cigarette between their lips, and the big sigh he takes after the tough guys slice his tires is more deflating than any action they’ve taken, or could conjure up. (“Nobody acts sincere,” Judy notes, in what seems both a textual reference and a shot at several of the lesser supporting players.)
But Dean’s off-the-cuff performance is, it could be argued, working against the picture. The overwrought nature of Stewart Stern and Irving Shulman’s screenplay is often at odds with Dean’s naturalistic instincts and playing; he’s acting up a storm, but the elements circling him are a little bit corny, and a little bit melodramatic. Rebel is presented in CinemaScope and WarnerColor, but Dean is giving a boxed-in, black-and-white performance; try imagining On the Waterfront in widescreen color and you get an idea of the incongruity at play.
Yet its moments of silliness are almost always matched with authenticity, frequently in whiplash-inducing proximity; Buzz’s goofy death, for example, is followed by a stunning three-point arrangement of the misfits, anchored by the tender gesture of Jim reaching out his hand to Judy. (And it does culminate with a dark-skinned kid shot by the cops – some things never change!) Rebel Without a Cause is, for much of its running time, of its moment, but it captures that moment with a grace and vulnerability that must’ve been astonishing for its original audiences.