Ever since the world was new, people have wanted to rebel. Although it has not always been clear what they were rebelling from or against, the rebellion continues. It seems to be wired into our consciousness. Take the 1955 drama about emotionally confused suburban, middle-class teenagers directed by the astute Nicolas Ray. It offers both social commentary and an alternative to previous films depicting delinquents in urban slum environments.
One of the real keys to the film’s power is the way in which the principal characters meet and bond during the movie’s opening sequence. James Dean, who portrays Jim Stark, is seen drunkenly lying down on the sidewalk. He is subsequently arrested and taken to the juvenile division of the police station. Then there’s Natalie Wood (Judy) who is brought in for a curfew violation. Finally, there’s Sal Mineo (Plato Crawford), who was brought in for shooting a litter of puppies. All three reveal their innermost frustrations to the police officers: each suffers from problems at home.
The plot gets going, so to speak, when Jim refuses to engage in a knife fight. He does agree to meet later that evening for a “Chickie Run” at Millertown Bluff, a high seaside cliff. When the gang leaves, Jim asks Plato what a “Chickie Run” is.
Well, of course, Jim finds out all about the “Chickie Run” and so much more! As it turns out, the two cars speed toward the cliff, Jim tumbles out of his car, but Buzz’s jacket sleeve gets caught on the door handle, preventing him from jumping out before both cars plummet to the rocky shores below.
Jim tells of his involvement in the crash to Frank and Carol (his parents) who saw a news report on TV. When Jim considers turning himself in, his parents warn him not to volunteer himself to the police. Carol then insists that they’re moving again. Jim becomes enraged and says he won’t let her use him as an excuse to keep running away. Jim then begs Frank to stand up with him against her, but Frank won’t. The scene ends with Jim storming out of the house, frustrated and confused.
What is especially interesting about Rebel Without A Cause is the impact it had on American popular culture of that era and the eiree kind of fame it engendered. It was the posthumous complaint of an actor widely expected to have a long and illustrious career. Only East of Eden (1954) was released while Dean was alive. Giant, his last film, came out in 1956. Then the legend took over.
Before the legend though, there was the angst. Like Hamlet’s disgust at his mother’s betrayal of his father, Dean’s feelings in the film mask a deeper malaise, a feeling that life is a pointless choice between being and not being. This emerges the first time Jim talks with Judy (Natalie Wood), the girl next door. “You live here, don’t you?” he says. “Who lives?” she replies.
This laconic sort of dialogue continues in the exchange between Jim and Buzz as they prepare for their cliffside race:
“Why do we do this?” Jim asks.
“You got to do something?” says Buzz.
Thus do our attitudes and our aspirations find voice. Probably more than any other film of its time, Rebel Without A Cause is an extremely subversive and enduring tribute to the innocence and idiocy of youth.