[REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE screens Friday August 5th at 7:30 pm at the Connor Palace Theatre in Playhouse Square.]
Review by Charles Cassady, Jr.
The statement originally came from screenplay of the 1955 immortal REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE.
Yes, it’s a bit dated by modern gangsta-rap and sext-message tastes.
But for a generation of viewers it’s still the troubled-youth drama to
which all troubled-youth dramas must measure. Plus, I’m told, fans of
classic American automobiles get multiple cargasms from viewing.
Teenage lawlessness and
hoodlums had been depicted in Hollywood movies before, but always in an
urban-slum environment (think "Bowery Boys"). Daring for its era, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE showed
1950s auds that nice middle-class suburban kids could go wrong too.
High schooler Jim Stark (James Dean, who practically owns the camera) is
perpetually moody and in trouble, despite - maybe because of - his
doting but conflict-timid father (Jim Backus, usually always seen as a
comedian in movies and TV, is here interestingly cast in a dramatic
Starting at a new school after unspecified problems
elsewhere, Jim befriends a sensitive misfit boy (Sal Mineo) from a
broken home, and he also catches the attention of popular classmate Judy
(Natalie Wood) with her own baggage of family turmoil. Judy is part of a
gang-like clique that bullies Jim and goads him into a dangerous
drag-race duel (in stolen cars) that results in tragedy.
Despite outdated touches - these punks don't listen to rock music, but rather big-band swing – REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE
still comes on strong; from the opening scene of live-wire actor James
Dean drunk in the gutter, there a sense that the film means business. It
was indeed an iconic screen drama of the 1950s, serious-minded,
superbly acted and designed to illuminate the hot topic of juvenile
delinquency - which authorities at the time blamed on everything from
Bill Haley's Comets to comic books.
Here, although no quick fixes are offered, the
diagnosis is grounded in Freudian psychology. It's hormones and parents,
in Jim's case his ineffectual dad and domineering mom, in Judy's case a
father distanced by the girl's maturing sexuality. Suggestions of
closeted homosexuality on the part of Mineo’s character (Johnnie, AKA
“Plato”) didn’t survive the picture’s gestation and studio censorship
(onscreen the character’s infantilism is ascribed to being the son of a
distant, divorced single mom), but it’s not hard to read it between the
The gang violence and youthful recklessness that
drives the plot is shown to be petty and futile. Even Buzz, Jim's
hood-like enemy, says he likes Jim, but fights with him just for
appearance's sake, or maybe a heavy sense of existential boredom ("Gotta
do something"). Supposedly the scenario resulted from filmmaker
Nicholas Ray researching hundreds of police reports with the actors and
concluding that out-of-control teens, even in apparently "good"
families, get a raw deal from moms and dads unable to understand and
cope with them.
Griffith Park Observatory in LA, a recurring stage
(with one of the more troubling planetarium shows you are ever likely to
see; no wonder these kids went nuts) proceeded to be an iconic
film-location site, no more so than James Dean himself, reappearing in
other pictures from copycat juvie melodramas to THE TERMINATOR. I
was lucky enough to visit Griffith Park once, and I beheld a bronze
bust of James Dean put up after the young star’s car-crash death. I
think I later heard the head was stolen…or maybe it had been stolen
before, and replaced, numerous times. In any case, it wasn’t me who did
it. But somehow I get the sensation that Jim Stark would understand. (4
out of 4 stars)