Why I Love… #114: Rebel Without A Cause

Year: 1955

Director: Nicholas Ray

Stars: James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo

Uff, what more is there to say about Rebel Without A Cause? Somewhere in the recesses of my laptop is a list of prospective titles for this occasional series, and there are titles on that list that absolutely terrify me. They’re the most talked out titles. Chief among them is Rebel. What angle could I possibly take that hasn’t been seen through to its conclusion before? I’ve got it on now and I feel like putting something down, so indulge me if you will…

I came to Rebel relatively late. One of those watch-to-see movies. So entrenched in the canon of film history that it felt like an exercise. That is, until I started watching it. I was hypnotised, immediately. We gloss over so much ‘content’ these days. I’m as susceptible as any and need to actively move my phone out of reach to maintain discipline half of the time. Not necessary with Rebel.

Boy what a run Nicholas Ray was on in the mid-fifties, tapping melodrama as strongly and subversively as Douglas Sirk. He poured it into his work like liquid steel. He flooded the valleys of the western with it in Johnny Guitar, channeled it into James Mason’s colossal performance in Bigger Than Life. But he didn’t need it at all with Rebel. His star, the young James Dean, brought it.

James Dean, James Dean. Cause of so much swooning in another favourite of mine; Robert Altman’s Come Back to the 5 and Dime. I’d seen him in Giant (also on that list) and thought he was good, but little prepared me for his Jim Stark; a force as unstoppable as a boulder coming down a hill at you. Those opening scenes cinched it. Dean improvised a lot of his writhing and contorting; playing with that cymbal monkey while the sickly red credits do their bit, but the way Ray frames him in the police station afterward shows how keenly he knew what he had. Ray keeps the camera low as Dean looms. Jim Stark towers over his own parents (Jim Backus, Ann Doran); a colossus, uncontrollable.

Ray’s film taps into both a displaced generation and a time of societal malaise. Kids were growing up in the shadow of WWII. America had everything, and so much of it. Advertising painted a portrait of a country in full bloom, contented, affluent. What then if you didn’t feel these things at the same time? Hardships defined the lives of these kids’ parents. What was left to define their own dissatisfaction?

Rebel creates a sense of danger in seemingly benign places. As a class the kids visit the planetarium. Inside they witness immense combustion. The teens roil in their seats, but Jim is relatively calm, as though connecting with the vast tempestuous images engulfing him – his malaise is the size of the universe. Outside, he begrudgingly becomes embroiled in a knife fight. The score zings to enhance the drama of it, but Ray also uses the vertiginous location to further accentuate the stakes.

It is during this scene that Jim agrees to take part in a “chickie race”, not knowing what that the term relates to. This leads to my favourite sequence in the movie, set the following night; a drag race at the edge of a cliff – another precipice in a film about getting close to the edge of yourself.

As the name of this blog suggests, I’m a great fan of the work of David Lynch which is, in part, defined by a strange time schism; the modern mixed up with what I call his ‘pretty ’50s’ aesthetic, most notable in Blue VelvetTwin Peaks (in its initial run) and Mulholland Drive. Watching Rebel for the first time it felt like a little bomb went off in my brain. Watching the clifftop sequence – the cars, the jackets, the darkness, Dennis Hopper – I felt as though I’d clicked a jigsaw puzzle piece into place that connected disparate elements of a whole. I could see clearly how Ray’s choices directly informed Lynch’s, particularly on Blue Velvet. The shooting style is eerily similar. As is the tone. Ray prefigured Lynch’s mingling of psychological complexity, violent death and idyllic suburbia by 30 years. Hell, he did it in the period Lynch became fixed on emulating.

One wonders if Lynch saw in Jim Stark a kind of proto-Frank Booth; how a man like that may have started out down a path of bad choices. You can see Jim struggling in the aftermath of the race, in which his competitor Buzz (Corey Allen) is killed. He goes home and drinks milk from the bottle – a seeming attempt at regression – but Jim can’t purify himself this way. He can’t go back. Even as he confesses his actions to his parents, Ray again has Dean loom over them on the family stairs. It’s a blazing argument, superbly choreographed. Jim’s parents are smaller than him because he’s been to the edge of himself; he’s seen further than they have. Their words and actions are ineffectual (I could reiterate the words of others over the symbolism of his emasculated father…).

Allow me to extend this thought for a moment longer… If Jim is Frank Booth in potential, then Plato (Sal Mineo) is the fledgling Jeffrey Beaumont. Wide-eyed. Looking for experience but fearful of the extremes of it, too. Kindred but in a way he can’t admit or articulate. The seeds are there. I’m not suggesting that Lynch plagiarised Rebel. The two films are very different. But I do think Rebel was a clear point of inspiration, used consciously or not.

Jim, Plato and Judy (Natalie Wood) have perhaps the most sincere and childish fun of the movie when they break into a deserted mansion by night, walking in the empty pool, chasing each other around the gardens. Plato even reminisces on his early boyhood. Ray shows that these kids have balance and dimension, but the setting also feels pointed. The only time this trio feel at ease is when they’re comfortably taking dominion of a dead place. The empty mansion is a relic of a past that cannot impinge on them. They stride its grounds like colonisers of a new planet. They’re conquerors without threat. It is as though they’ve wished all the parents away. But their peace is short-lived.

Plato’s fragile mental state is exposed and his actions barrel Rebel into it’s third act (here my correlation to Blue Velvet completely breaks down!). Tragedy consumes Jim, despite his best efforts. In his efforts, though, are glimmers of optimism. But the bones of the film aren’t optimistic. It’s a worried piece. It’s nervous and angry. It precariously juggles dual positions; recognising the emotions of Jim Stark and his ilk but also aligned with the early exploitation films that sensationalised youth; conservative fear-mongering on The Trouble With Kids Today.

Playing to both audiences this successfully is a baffling trick but Ray pulls it off. My favourite shot of Rebel is right near the end as Jim tries to coax the gun from Plato. It’s a shot of James Dean’s face. Behind him is complete darkness, but warm light plays on his face and his shoulders. It feels representative of the whole to me, in some way. Darkness and light and a young man in between.

These are my scattered thoughts… for what they’re worth. And another tricky customer struck off that list…

 

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