This is sort of a companion piece to last week’s “Back to 1955” in which we looked at Blackboard Jungle and how it both succeeded and failed to portray the restlessness of mid-fifties American youth. That movie portrayed its troubled teenagers as angry and dangerous, but seemed to have little interest in understanding why they were so restless and upset in the first place. Blackboard Jungle is a story told from the point of view of an authority figure on a mission. Rebel Without a Cause takes the opposite approach and puts these teenagers and their angst in clear focus. It’s a character movie that’s acted, directed, and shot with incredible skill. I think it’s a masterpiece.
But here’s where things get tricky. In order to truly analyze 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause, we must descend into the dark world of forbidden Hollywood, where whispered rumors swirl and tragedy abounds. This movie has roots in the seedy Hollywood that I’m both drawn to and repelled from. I’m torn: on one hand, I don’t really want to dwell on speculation and gossip, but I realize that seediness and sadness are so much a part of the legacy of this movie that it’s unavoidable to proceed without at least a cursory examination. It’s a fact that the lives of so many people involved in this movie, both in front of and behind the camera, are surrounded by heartache and tragedy, which I believe influenced the finished product.
Yet somehow out of all of this darkness comes a wonderful piece of cinema with a deep understanding of human nature and the flaws that so many of us share. Rebel Without a Cause gives us teenagers with real problems that the adults are unconcerned with, and it gives us adults who are so self-absorbed in their own world that they can’t see beyond themselves to care about anyone else. I firmly believe that we couldn’t have movies that realistically deal with teen problems if not for the ground broken by Rebel Without a Cause. We wouldn’t have The Graduate or even The Breakfast Club if Rebel Without a Cause hadn’t legitimized the pain and isolation that so many teenagers feel first. Surely this feels so authentic because there was so much genuine angst behind the camera.
Equally, his co-stars are in fine form. Natalie Wood was in the process of making a conscious transition from child-star performances into more grown-up material, and she seems decades older than her sixteen years. The secret to an actor’s soul is their eyes, and Natalie Wood’s eyes seemed to be a thousand years old. Unfortunately, there were off-screen reasons for that faraway look. Equally impressive is the turn given by Sal Mineo as a classmate of Dean’s who is fed up with his status quo and looking for a way out. And if you only know Jim Backus from his comedic roles like Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island, you’ll be surprised to see him portraying Dean’s ineffective father in a part that really gives him dramatic opportunity.
Johnny Guitar to life in 1954. In 1961, he took a turn at the Big Hollywood Epic with his movie about the life of Jesus Christ with King of Kings. As you can see, this is a man with a resume full of quality stuff, but I think Rebel Without a Cause stands above all of these. I can’t really think of another movie to compare it to, even now.
Ray directs with confidence and makes great use of his locations, turning one of LA’s most recognizable landmarks, Griffith Observatory, into something akin to Holy Ground for cinemaphiles. In contrast, he makes suburban California feel like a lonely, desolate place with walls that seem to be constantly closing in on its inhabitants. He plays with our sense of space, offering high shots to show power and low shots to convey powerlessness. He uses color to great effect, with both James Dean and Natalie Wood wearing red to stand out against everyone else. He also isn’t afraid to use Dutch angles to give us a sense of unease or dread. We shouldn’t be surprised; his cinematographer was Ernest Haller, the man who shot Gone with the Wind.
Read more of Heath Holland's writing at his blog Cereal at Midnight!