Classic ‘Rebel’ still relevant

By Lindsay Pierce

jamesdean“Rebel Without a Cause” first opened on Oct. 7, 1955, approximately one month after its star, James Dean, died in a fatal car accident. Dean’s fame stems from starring roles in only three films: “East of Eden” (1955), “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955) and “Giant” (1956), but his tragic and untimely death cemented his status as a cultural icon.

The film was nominated for three Academy Awards, and has also become an icon of its own. In 1990, it was added to the United States Library of Congress’s National Films Registry, deeming it “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”

Directed by Nicholas Ray, the film’s title is adopted from “Rebel Without a Cause: The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath” (1944) by psychiatrist Robert M. Lindner. The book is a case-study of an imprisoned teenage psychopath in the post-war years. However, the film itself does not directly reference Lindner’s work. The screenplay was written by Stewart Stem, from Irving Shulman’s adaptation of an original storyline written by Nicholas Ray.   

“Rebel Without a Cause” portrays what was seen as the moral decay of American youth.  It is considered to be one of the best 1950s films depicting young restlessness and rebellion.  Appropriately, the film was used as a case-study for the Hampshire College class titled “1950s: Cold War Culture & The Birth of Cool.” Playing at Amherst Cinema for a select engagement, Hampshire College professor Karen Koehler introduced and led a question-and-answer session for the film.

The film begins in the juvenile division of a Los Angeles Police Station. Jim Stark’s (Dean) parents and grandmother arrive from a country club dinner to exonerate their son, who has been charged with public drunkenness. The ensuing drama reads like family court, with Jim airing their dirty laundry and in a moment of coherence, yelling “You’re tearing me apart!” In following with the adage “a drunken man’s words are a sober man’s thoughts,” Jim reveals the dysfunctional family dynamics.

Judy (Natalie Wood) is picked up walking the streets in red. The tension at home and the constraints of her age and gender force her to escape from her house and run with “the kids,” a restless crowd that Jim comes to blows with. In the tension between Judy and her father, and the resentment towards her mother, Freud is clearly at work. The incestuous subtext of her relationship with her father is disconcerting at best. She later expresses to Jim that “I’ve been looking for someone to love me. And now I love somebody.”

Plato (Sal Mineo) is introduced as a fragile, volatile teenager, whose parents have all but abandoned him. Throughout the film, his view of Jim as a father figure becomes increasingly apparent.

The film was first released with the tag-lines “…and they both come from ‘good’ families!” and “The bad boy from a good family.” The film examines this idea of a “good family,” as Jim, Judy and Plato’s issues clearly stem from troubled family dynamics. 

The Starks have moved, once again, to escape from the trouble and embarrassment caused by Jim’s rebellious ways. Yet once again, Jim falls into trouble with the wrong crowd.  The film spans a 24-hour period, in which Jim is involved in a knife fight, and also in an accident in which Buzz Gunderson, the leader of the gang, is killed, and then proceeds to run from Buzz’s goonies who are out for revenge.

Koehler presented the idea that perhaps Dean’s best acting is nonverbal. There is a pervading idea of entrapment, in gender roles, and in Jim’s case, in his own body. Jim’s frustration threatens to boil over throughout the film; evidenced by his body language and the way in which he interacts with his environment.

Koehler began with the question, “Is there really a cause?” Throughout the film, it is heavily implied that Jim is trying to be the man that his father is not. In a climatic moment with his parents, Jim expresses that he wishes that his father would be a man, and that his mother would stop running from him.

If the film was meant to portray the decay of American youth, it is at odds with Dean’s character, who values honor and is described by Plato as sincere. Jim also finds love and friendship with Judy, to the astonishment of his parents.

In response to the comparison between film rebels James Dean and Marlon Brando, Koehler presented the problem with the idea of an archetypical rebel, saying, “If there is an archetype for rebels, there are certain things the rebel has to conform to, yet the essence of the rebel is breaking conformity. Conformity also needs the rebel, in order for conformity to be what is deemed ‘normative.’”