Film Study: Rebel Without a Cause

Introduction

Rebel Without a Cause was directed by Nicholas Ray and was released in 1955, starring James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo. The film is considered one of the best films ever released and is praised for the directing of Nicholas Ray and the acting of the main actors securing three Academy Award Nominations including Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Sal Mineo and best actress in a Supporting Role for Natalie Wood. However, the performance by James Dean was as extraordinary as the performances by Mineo and Wood since it was perfectly balanced, esoteric and subtle adding realism to the character.

This was the first film that dealt with the life of teenagers, expressed their agonies and emotions presenting the dilemmas and problems they were facing throughout their school years. After the release of this film, more and more films were released each year that presented the life of teenagers creating a new genre of films; the teen films, a few examples are American Graffiti (1973) directed by George Lucas and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) directed by  John Hughes.  It was also the first film to show the wild and aggressive side of teenagers stepping away from the conventional, suppressed and forged image of teenagers that was depicted in films hitherto the release of Rebel Without a Cause.

The popularity of the film increased greatly due to the premature death of James Dean just a few weeks before its release. The character of Jim Stark with his iconic red jacket became an immortal symbol of the rebellious nature of teenagers against their parents. Teenagers felt that their issues were finally addressed in a film and found a hero in the image of Jim Stark.

 

The teenagers of Rebel Without a Cause

Characters’ Analysis

 

Jim Stark

The film looks at a day of the life of Jim Stark, a teenager living in the United States in a middle class family; his parents and grandmother. Jimmy is masterfully played by James Dean as the child living in a family with a domineering mother, strict grandmother and a submissive father. From the first scene of the film where Jim is taken to a police station because he was arrested wandering the streets drunk shows his suppressed anger against the female figures of his family as well as, his disappointment due to the meek nature of his father.

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In the opening shot Jim Stark is lying down on a street drunk next to a toy monkey. He gently grabs the toy and starts playing with it (the scene was entirely improvised by the actor). The use of a close shot and eye level angle make the character likable to the audience. After a few moments he lies the monkey down and covers it with a wrapping paper, like a mother does when she puts her child to sleep. Then, he crawls closer to the toy and lies in fetal position. His facial reactions and motions and especially his posture at the end of the shot highlight his innocence and childlike behaviour. The film manages from its opening shot to make the audience relate and sympathize with the character
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In this scene Jim is in the police station and his parents are arguing while trying to understand what bothers their son. The tight framing and the position of his parents’ figures in the right and on the left of the frame emphasize the character’s feelings of suppression and suffocation caused by his parents.

The most famous scene in the film is when Jim Stark talks about his dilemma to his parents; whether he should go to the police to testify about an accident that occurred at his presence and caused the life of one of the school bullies. His parents advice him to conceal this fact and not testify to the police but Jim feels this action is not honourable. Jim asks his father to stand up with him against his mother and support his opinion but he is father is reluctant and hesitates to do so. Jim attacks his father in a desperate act of anger and disappointment. At the end of the scene he storms out of the house in tears feeling that once more he was not understood by his parents.

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While Jim is having an argument with his parents if he should go to the police to testify about the death of Buzz or not (even though he strongly believes that he should talk to the police instead of pretending that never happened) the camera tilts a bit, creating a very interesting composition. The shot is canted adding tension and anxiety; his mother is higher in the shot than the rest of the characters, implying that she is the dominant figure of the house. She has the power and control over her family. His father is at the lowest point, making him look small, underlying his weakness to stand up to his wife and support his son. Jim stands in the middle contradicting with both his parents.

The character of Jim Stark is probably the most relatable figure of the film. It is very easy for teenagers to relate and sympathize with this character since he is a reflection of them. Many teenagers during their adolescence realize that their parents are not the kind of people they thought they were. They perceive their parents’ weaknesses and faults and get very disappointed and wish to rebel to escape from their families because they fear that they might end up being like them when they grow up. In the case of Jim Stark he sees the weak nature of his father and considers it as pathetic and sad, and loses his respect towards him. He cannot stand his mother since he considers her responsible for emasculating his father and tries to somehow avenge him by rebelling against her. He feels that the autarchic nature of his mother is an obstacle in their attempts of communicating with each other and feels lost since he cannot talk to his parents for advice and guidance. Jim Stark feels angry, trapped, suppressed and lonely since he cannot communicate with his family and has no friends.

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The sets throughout the film were cleverly designed to evoke imprisonment, suppression and suffocation. They constant use of vertical lines and barriers like doors (a very interesting fact is the the line of Jim’s father to his son: do you always have to slam the door in my face?), staircase spindles and the wire mesh in the police station’s windows act as a metaphor of the dichotomization of the characters due to the generational gap and thus difference of opinion. In this particular shot the composition of the staircase spindles in front of Jim’s father emphasize his weak personality and imply a sense of entrapment; the use of the feminine apron as part of his costume humiliate the character completely.

 

Judy

Judy is the second teenager of the trio of the main characters of the film and was outstandingly performed by Natalie Wood.  The actress was able to create an angry character that feels rejected by her father.

 We first encounter the character of Judy in the same police station where Jim was taken at the beginning of the film. Judy explains to the police officer that her father was angry with her and tried violently to smear off her lipstick since he thought that it is inappropriate for her because of her young age. Judy complains that her father does not treat her like he used to, he became less affectionate and it seems that this is because of her growing up and entering into womanhood. Her father does not feel comfortable with his daughter’s sexuality and does not know how to treat her properly, resulting in having arguments with her.

06
In this scene we see Judy for the first time; she is explaining to the police officer about her arguments with her father. The use of the red colour evoke the character’s anger, as well as, underlie her sexuality and femininity. The red hue is a very loud colour and is used in films as a symbol of anger, sexuality and passion. 

In one scene Judy asks from her father to be affectionate and treat her like he treats her much younger brother but the scene ends up in them having a loud quarrel and finally her father slapping her when she tried to kiss him. After this scene Judy leaves her home in tears. The rejection she gets by her father evolves into feelings of resentment and disappointment, resulting in her wanting to rebel against her family. A form of rebellion is her participating in bullying Jim at school and afterwards in a race with stolen cars.

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After the argument with her father she leaves her home in tears feeling rejected and disappointed.
08
Another example of imprisonment; the frame’s composition which contains doors and vertical lines emphasize the lack of communication and understanding between Judy and her parents.

After the death of Buzz, who was the boyfriend of Judy and the leader of their gang of bullies, she becomes attached to Jim and sees a potential husband in him. Her sudden feelings of romance and affection towards Jim underline her desperate need of filling up the void inside her that was caused by her father’s behaviour with another male figure.

 

John “Plato” Crawford

The character of Plato, played by Sal Mineo is a very complex personality and an accurate representation of teenagers who come from broken homes and dysfunctional families. His father left his home years ago and supports him only financially but there is no apparent communication between them. As for his mother, according to his nanny “she is always away” and during the period of time the film takes place she is in Chicago on holidays. Therefore, his only guardian is his nanny who seems genuinely worried about him since she believes the state of his family sparks Plato’s violent behaviour. At the beginning of the film Plato and his nanny are waiting at the police station to talk to one of the officers since Plato shot a few puppies. The manners, behavior and reactions of Plato show how much trauma his parents had caused him and the fact that his mother refuses to send him to a psychologist exacerbates his situation.

Throughout the film it is shown how Plato’s unstable state of mind is deteriorating.  At the police station is presented as a heart broken, angry and rejected individual who feels neglected by his parents since they forgot his birthday. As the film proceeds, his personality becomes more complex. He meets Jim and feels dazzled by him, he even follows him at his home in order to see where he lives. His performance indicates that he is a homosexual (it is known that during filming James Dean told Sal Mineo to look at Jim in a way that someone would look at his lover) and feels attracted to Jim. However, when the film was made, homosexuality was not socially accepted, so, in the story, Plato’s attraction to Jim was justified as a son – father relationship.

When Judy asked Plato about his relationship to Jim, Plato lied and made up a fantastical relationship which comes off as a bit disturbed and unsettling. He tells lies throughout the film, especially about his family and in one scene he admits it as he forgot what lies he had already told.

14
In this scene Plato is lying to Judy about his relationship with Jim. He seems very dazzled and enchanted by Jim.

After Buzz’s accidental death the bullies search for Jim to prevent him from going to the police to talk about it. The bullies harassed Plato to get his address book in order to find Jim’s address. After this incident Plato discovers a letter by his father. Feeling happy and excited opens the letter and realizes that is just a check for child support. The nonexistence of a letter fuels his anger and storms out of the house after he had taken his mother’s gun.

15
Plato sees the handwriting of his father on the closed envelope and gets excited since he thinks that his father is attempting to communicate with him.
16
He discovers that the envelope contains only a check.
17
Since there was no other personal note or anything Plato throws the letter away. Upset and disappointed grabs his mother’s gun and leaves the house.

Plato, Jim and Judy meet coincidentally at the abandoned mansion Plato had shown Jim earlier in the film to avoid the bullies. There, Plato opens up to them, and talks about his family issues indicating that he wants Jim and Judy to become his new family. This notion is enhanced by Judy singing a lullaby to Plato and he falls asleep.  After Plato falls asleep Jim and Judy leave him to explore the rest of the mansion. Finally, the bullies find Plato alone sleeping and attack him. Plato escapes and becomes paranoid thinking that Jim and Judy leaving him alone. His past and abandonment issues fuels his paranoia and in a panic shoots at one of the bullies injuring him and fires at the policemen who arrive on the scene. As the film progresses it feels that Plato’s mind is very feeble and that he can have an emotional outburst at any time and react violently and aggressively.

18
In this scene the teenagers get to know each other better and Plato tells them about his family issues.

 

 

Social and Political Commentary

The film has been praised for the performances of the actors but also the original material that it choose to focus on. Up until this point the modern American family has been portrayed in films as the model family that is accepted by social conventions. Such a family is characterised by stability, order and usually the family members are religious, a fact that enhances their sense of honesty and fairness. In Hollywood it was not desirable to show real family issues and conflicts but show a family that should be an example to real families. However, this model family is only a facade and immediately collapses revealing that its content is rotten and decayed.  The constant portray of this kind of embellished family creates a notion of suppression and control, since all the members of the family should succumb to this perfect image and become model family members suppressing their issues, conflicts and concerns. In the case of the Rebel Without A Cause it showed the stories of three teenagers that come from problematic families which each faces other issues destroying the idea of the model American Family.

 In the film there where a few subtle incidents that indicate suppression and control. Firstly, the scene with the flag in the yard of the school. All teenagers are chatting and seem cheerful and happy when suddenly a cannon fire is heard; then everybody stays quiet and still while the flag is hoisted up. It certainly shows that this is a sensible and respectable act but it does feel forced and obtrusive to the teenagers’ normal behaviour. The silence of their chatter seems very uncomfortable and unnatural.

Another incident is in same scene where students go through the school’s main entrance but they avoid stepping on the school insignia which is engraved on the ground. Jim steps on it by mistake being his first day in his new school and another student immediately reacts upon this and tells him that his act is disrespectful. Jim apologises and the other student understood his mistake for being so abrupt and helped him to find his classroom. This incident acts as a metaphor. The environment of the school is considered to be the “first” society a person comes across, and if he acts accordingly then it is supposed that not only he had accepted the social conventions but also that he is accepted by the society. Therefore in this case, this event acts as a metaphor of a person acting against the social rules. Furthermore, the incident does evoke a sense of control and suppression towards the students; not stepping on the school insignia seems like an easy rule but it can also be considered as an image of a person rejecting the social norm; and this is frown up and should be immediately dealt with, like the student did with Jim.

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The students avoid stepping on the school’s insignia since they see it as a disrespectful act.

Moreover, another point that is worth mentioning is the “atomic age”. In the scene in which Judy is having dinner with her family her little brother is playing with a toy gun and shouts “the atomic age”. It is well known that after the fall of the atomic bombs in 1945 in Hiroshima and Nagasaki the whole world became horrified of the atomic technology and its destructive abilities. There were documentaries made and even the children at school were taught about nuclear power and drills were practised in case a nuclear bomb falls. The children that were born after the end of the Second World War were raised under the “shadow of the mushroom cloud”, they were raised in fear and uncertainty, and this definitely had some effect on them. This reference in the films adds a sense of instability, which is antithetic to the solidity of at the typical American family. Their fear might act as an extra motive for the teenagers to be angry and rebel against their parents, hence the society.

13
Judy’s little brother is playing with his toy gun shouting “Atomic Age”.

 

The Two Sides of Rebel Without a Cause

I have watched the film more than one time. The first time I have watched it I was a teenager and the second time I was an adult finishing up my MA on film production. It is probably one of the only films I watched that felt a totally different film the second time I watched it. It seems to me that the film is not only addressing the problems of misunderstood teenagers but also the issues their parents are facing raising such children.

When I watched it as a teenager I completely related with the teenagers of the film and especially with the character of James Stark. The angry and the rebellious nature of the character illustrated not only me but all teenagers. The performance felt realistic and the conversations with his parents and specifically his father, bear all the appropriate attitudes and reactions of a real dysfunctional family. The insecurities and agonies, his feelings of entrapment and suppression make the character more human adding more realism to his performance and thus, making it very easy to relate with the character. Consequently, when a teenager watches the film he/she feels retaliated and satisfied that he/her was finally understood.

In my opinion, the strongest scene in the film is the scene in which Jim asks his father some advice on the issue of one’s honour. Jim was not sure if he should show up to the “chickie” run (two kids race in stolen cars towards the edge of a cliff, and whoever jumps first out of the car before it falls into the bottom of the cliff is a coward). In this scene Jim’s father tries to tell Jim that this matter might look important to him now but when he grows up and looks back at it he will realise that is a very weak problem. On the other hand, Jim tells him that he cannot understand him, and feeling completely lost and unguided asks him to give him answers immediately. His father tries to reason with him and decides to make a list of the pros and cons of the matter, but Jim impatient and disappointed storms out of the house because his father never gave him a clear answer.

This is a very interesting scene. The first time I watched the film I was totally on the side of Jim. I thought that his father was not strong enough to help and he could not give him answers because he did not understand the importance of the matter. But when I re -watched the film as an adult I was on the side of the father. It is amazing to see both perspectives of father and son to be portrayed so masterfully and to actually make the audience realise how a teenager can change and evolve into an adult which is what Jim is doing by the end of the film. After the traumatic experience he went through due to Plato’s death at the end of the film, it feels like he has grown up and entered adulthood.

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In the last sequences Jim’s father promises that he will be a much stronger and supportive father and comforts him.
10
Jim gets close to Plato’s body and zips the jacket he gave him a few moments before he was shot and Judy puts on his shoe he dropped. Their actions are parent like; Plato is like their surrogate son and they wish to protect and look after him. They feel responsible for Plato, who was seeing them as his parents since he was neglected by his own family. 
11
Plato’s death made Jim realises how difficult it is to raise a child. At that moment he is ready to enter the world of the adults since he accepts himself and his parents. He introduces Judy to his parents and they accept her with a warm smile. 
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It these shots the couples are equal and the similarities between them are strong. Both of them wear adult clothing and Judy’s hairstyle is the same as Jim’s mother.

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