The Film: 'Rebel Without a Cause' (1955), Dir. Nicholas Ray
Starring: James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Jim Backus and Ann Doran.
Why I Haven't Seen It Until Now: Because the overwhelming combination of sex and cool that is James Dean makes me ashamed to call myself a man? Because it's such an iconic film that I feel like I've seen it before even though I haven't? You got me. I don't have any good excuses this week.
Pre-Viewing Assumptions: It goes something like this: James Dean is this rebel but he's lacking in a cause, hence the title. He spends the movie driving around town, looking tough, talking tough and ignoring Natalie Wood because he's way too troubled to care about the charms of a pretty lady. Because he's a rebel. Without a cause. Naturally, when the subject of your personal rebellion is not a single subject but the world at large, you're bound to make an enemy or two. 'Rebel Without a Cause' is a whirlwind tour of James Dean's few friends and many enemies, climaxing with a suicidal car race between him and his major rival. When Dean accidentally kills him, he's arrested and asked exactly what he's rebelling against. His immortal reply? "Whaddya got?"
Everyone knows the plot of this movie, so I'm not really spoiling anything, am I? It's not a movie about plot as much as it is a movie about style and this movie just oozes with iconic cool, even if it's a story that's been run straight into the ground in recent decades. However, 'Rebel Without a Cause' remains unique because it keeps itself at a distance from its subject, never judging, just observing. Most of the rip-offs tell you exactly how to feel about the central character: he's either a monster who needs to learn to control himself or a misunderstood hero with a heart of gold.
Is James Dean wrong to beat the stuffing out of his overbearing father? Is he wrong to ignore Natalie Wood and emotionally abuse her? Is his nihilism in the age of Eisenhower admirable or monstrous? Well, the answers are yes, yes and maybe a little bit of both, but I came to that conclusion on my own because director Nicholas Ray chooses to just let the story unfold without pounding any of the notes too hard.
But let's face it. This movie is all about James Dean and his leather jacket and his car and his cigarettes and his F**k You attitude. It's punk rock twenty years in advance.
Post-Viewing Reaction: I learned an important lesson this week. That lesson is this: just because a movie is famous, don't assume you know anything about it. As you may have already noticed, and I apologize for the furrowed brows and gnashing of teeth I surely caused, I really didn't know a single accurate thing about 'Rebel Without a Cause.' And that famous line I quoted? I now know that it's actually from 'The Wild One.'
Oh, yeah. I haven't seen 'The Wild One' either. Please don't judge me. My personal shame is punishment enough.
Let's take a moment to talk about the iconic imagery of 'Rebel Without a Cause.' What aspects of the film have really embedded themselves into our consciousness? It's certainly not the plot. I have no idea what film I'm describing up there, but it's certainly not 'Rebel Without a Cause.' No, the most iconic thing about this film is James Dean himself. Actually, to be more specific, the most iconic thing about this film is the poster -- that famous image of Dean leaning against a brick wall, looking tough and wearing clothing that he never actually wears at all during the course of the film. It's an image that's graced a thousand dorm room walls, an image that you can find mass printed and on sale at Wal-Mart next to images of Audrey Hepburn from 'Breakfast at Tiffany's.' Because we all know James Dean died young, because we all know the attitude of 'Rebel Without a Cause' if not the actual details; it's become an image representing eternal youth, rebellion, going out in a blaze of glory and whatever other metaphors you choose to make out of it.
Humphrey Bogart never actually says "Play it again, Sam" and James Dean never actually wears that coat. The only thing stranger than what we choose to remember is how we choose to remember it.
So what exactly is 'Rebel Without a Cause' about? It's not about a nihilistic loner like I thought it was, but actually about three desperately lonely people finding each other and forming a surrogate family, only to find that family torn apart by outside forces. It's strange how entirely inaccurate the title feels in retrospect -- a more appropriate title would have been 'Several Rebels Who Really Want a Cause Because Sad and Lonely Is No Way to Go Through Life.' In a decade known for sweeping all of its dirty little secrets under the rug, it's fascinating to look at a film made in the midst of HUAC and the early rumblings of the Cold War that recognizes and sympathizes with non-conformists, people who aren't rebels because they choose to be, but because it's in their nature. Ironically, this is a movie that makes not being cool look like the coolest thing in the world. I'm no social historian and I'm too lazy to actually do real research, but I think it's safe to assume that the definition of cool was one thing before this movie and something else entirely right after.
There is one scene in particular that seems to inform the entire film. During a class trip to an observatory, James Dean and company view a presentation on the universe and learn how insignificant the Earth is and how some day the galaxy will come to an end and our planet and our history will be no more. It'll be like we were never here. If that's the case, why even bother with this life thing? Why care? Why should you be happy? What's there to be happy about? It's not going to matter in the end when the sun expands and kills us all. If you're James Dean, the only proper response to this is to simply not care.
Apparently, learning about our slowly expanding, slowly dying universe will turn you into a rebel without a cause. Or Alvy Singer. I'm not sure which one faces a tougher uphill battle through life.
But enough historical and philosophical blather. Is the movie any good?
Well -- let's be frank here -- not really. Sluggishly paced and filled with oddly wooden performances and pedestrian direction, 'Rebel Without a Cause' has not aged particularly well, remaining a product of its time and place rather than transcending them. As a historical pop culture document, it remains fascinating and important, showcasing an apathy that would become anger that would become the 1960s. Would the film be as famous had James Dean lived longer, made more films and defined himself a little more clearly? Probably not. Much of the film's appeal is the enigmatic Dean, a man who died before he could embarrass himself or possibly even truly define himself. We watch him and we wonder what could have been.
Still, for what's essentially a silly, well-intentioned B-movie, 'Rebel Without a Cause' certainly has its fair share of great moments. Deans immortal cry of "You're tearing me apart!" The ridiculously over-the-top game of chicken. The not-so-subtle subtext that poor Plato is secretly gay, harbors a crush on James Dean and rushes the cops with an unloaded gun not because he's actually afraid of being arrested, but because it's a quick and efficient suicide. There is enough going on in this film to prevent it from ever being labeled as a total failure, but it feels like curiosity, not a classic. I can't help but feel that the imaginary film I envisioned before I actually sat down and watched this is far more entertaining than what I actually got.
'Rebel Without a Cause' just feels unclassifiable. It's too famous to be ignored, but not good enough to be fully embraced. It's full of raw emotion but it's also ridiculously silly and campy. It's effortlessly iconic but not for reasons most people think it is. The only thing I can say for sure is that at least I've seen it now.
And for the record, James Dean does make me ashamed to call myself a man.
Next Week's Column:
Due to a tie in the voting last week, the next entry will be 'The Sound of Music.' However, the week after that is wide open! Peruse the selection below and tell me what I should watch after that!
'The Bicycle Thief'
'The 39 Steps'
'A Matter of Life and Death'
'Bride of Frankenstein'
'The Monster Squad'
'Colossus: The Forbin Project'
'A Boy and His Dog'
'The Thing From Another World'