Profoundly romantic and lacerating in its despair, Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause, a self-contained portrait of three isolated teenagers, is James Dean’s best film and best performance (it ranks high in Ray’s work as well). It’s true that some of its details and performances don’t ring true, especially the cartoonish portrayals of the teen’s parents; at revival houses, the scenes with the parents tend to get unwanted laughs, and they’re flawed, but only on the surface. Where the attitudes of East of Eden are hopelessly dated and broad, the poetic longing for connection in Rebel Without a Cause will always feel timeless.
Dean isn’t fussy here, as he is in his agonized Brando-esque contortions in East of Eden; he’s emotionally direct, tenderly seductive, protective of others, and blessed with courtly humor. The actor’s Jim Stark is clearly laboring under a burden of heightened sensitivity, which is why the ’50s complacency of his parents and their milieu is, in his words, tearing him apart. He doesn’t want to be called a chicken by his peers, but he realizes that the tests of manhood he’s forced to endure by the thugs at school are bullshit, as false in their way as the world of his parents. So, in the most magical section of the film, Jim and his friends Judy (Natalie Wood) and Plato (Sal Mineo) take over a deserted mansion and try to make a family for themselves. This sequence doesn’t last long, but it’s so primal and Borzage-like in nature that it’s easy to see why everyone who sees it is so impacted by it.
Stewart Stern’s screenplay can be didactic, but Ray and his young trio of actors transcend this limitation. Ray emphasizes the reds and blues in his widescreen frame for an unforgettably neurotic effect, and he showcases savant-like Dean as gently as Jim takes care of Plato. Ray seems to understand the self-dramatizations and exaggerated melancholy of adolescence, but he portrays these qualities with deep affection, respect, and insight.
The most complicated aspect of Rebel Without a Cause, and the thing that makes it seem daring even today, is its sexuality. Ray was bisexual (as was Dean) and he was sleeping with both Wood and Mineo while they shot the film. He brings Wood’s beauty into full flowering and gets a simple, touching performance from her (though she’s overwrought in her first scene). With Mineo, Ray craftily put together a portrait of a tormented gay teenager. Stern’s script tells us that Plato is searching for a father figure in Jim (and Plato’s famed locker photo of Alan Ladd shows that he wants a Shane-type father, not a lover), but the way Mineo looks at Dean leaves no modern audience in doubt as to what his real feelings are.
Ray’s sense of location is as keen as his sureness with actors. The planetarium set, where the kids go on a field trip and later return to at night, is especially evocative. During the trip, a stentorian narrator tells of the upcoming destruction of the Earth, and says, “Man, existing alone, seems himself an episode of little consequence.” Then, after the kids have taken in this existential truth, he says briskly, “Thank you for your attention!” It’s that dash of humor in Rebel Without a Cause that’s little remarked upon; it gives you a nice ’50s hipster-style shot of relief, and it also sets you up for the raw tragedy of the ending.
The teenagers’ idyll in the deserted mansion is ended by school thugs (one of them a young Dennis Hopper). Plato, confused and unbalanced, starts firing a gun he took from his mother’s room. He finds refuge in the planetarium, and Jim goes in to get him, talking him outside and surreptitiously taking the bullets from the gun. But Plato gets scared and runs, the cops see the gun, and they shoot him. When Plato is shot, Ray has Jim and Judy in the frame with him and he tilts the camera with the impact of the bullet; it’s one of the most devastating shots in film history because it visually annihilates the rapport the three teenagers have built up in an instant. Jim and Judy go off together, but Ray underlines the film’s sense of loss by saving the last close-up for the only other person who loved Plato, his nurse (Marietta Canty). As everyone drives away, it’s Ray himself who enters the planetarium at the break of day, a great film director surveying the blank slate left after Jim, Judy, and Plato’s wishful, improved civilization is wiped out in a flash of gunfire.