Rebel without a Cause: Crushing the Façade of the American Family

Rebel Without a Cause was directed by Nicholas Ray and was released in 1955, starring James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo. The film fairly gained a place among the best films ever produced, 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. What was ground-breaking at the time was that this was the first film that dealt with the life of teenagers in -what was considered at that time- more ‘realistic’ manner. The film illustrates their agonies and emotions and presents the dilemmas and issues that face during their school years, which mostly have to do with functioning in a society and finding their identity. After the release of Rebel Without a Cause, more and more films were released each year that presented the life of teenagers creating a new genre of films: the teen films, and coming-of-age films. A few examples of such films are West Side Story (1961) by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, The Graduate (1967) by Mike Nichols, American Graffiti (1973) by George Lucas, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) by John Hughes.  Rebel Without a Cause was also the first film that dared to reveal the wild and aggressive side of teenagers, stepping away from the embellished, conventional, suppressed and downright forged image of teenagers that was up to that point depicted in films. The film was a box office success and one of the reasons that lead to the growing of the popularity of the film is the premature death of James Dean less than a month before its release. However, the film was met with mixed reviews by critics. Few critics praised the directing of Ray and the young actors’ performances, especially the performance by James Dean, who was praised for his ‘raw talent’ that shined throughout the film (Carter, 2008). While other critics, such as Bosley Crowther (1955), characterised the film as ‘violent, brutal and disturbing’, and as an unreasonably graphic portrayal of teenagers and their ‘weird ways’. Despite mixed -and often negative- reviews, the character of Jim Stark (played by Dean) 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, and found a hero in the image of Jim Stark.


Society Vs Family

The film has been acclaimed for the performances of the actors, but most importantly about the original material that it chose to focus on. So far in films, and mainly in Hollywood, the modern American family has been portrayed as a model family, which is admired but also that is accepted and formed by social conventions. Such a family is primarily characterised by stability, discipline and order.  Usually the family members are religious, as religion and especially Christianity becomes a source of order and ethos. This enhances the family’s sense of honesty and fairness. In Hollywood, it was not desirable to show real family issues and conflicts, but instead depict a family that would be an example to real families. Certainly, family issues have been shown before, such as adultery, widowhood and divorce, but they were dealt with in a dramatic manner, such as in film-nor films. These films did not attempt to make any statements about these issues, they merely used these issues as instigators to move along the story. In Rebel Without a Cause, the model family is exposed only as a facade and immediately collapses, revealing that its content is rotten and decayed.  The constant depiction, but mostly the need to maintain this depiction 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. Rebel Without a Cause showcases the stories of three teenagers that come from problematic families, with each family facing different issues, destroying the idea of the model American family, but also illustrating the pressure that comes from society, which is imposed upon the families in order to force them to ‘keep up with appearances’.

Before exploring the main characters, it is worthy to mention that there are a few subtle incidents in the film that indicate this suppression and control. The first scene worth noting, is a moment that takes place in the front 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 also feels 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 and avoid stepping on the school insignia, which is engraved on the ground. Jim does not notice it and steps on it by mistake since it is his first day in this new school. 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 could also be a metaphor. The school milieu is considered to be the “first” society a person comes across. This “society” tests the functionality of the individual. If the student conforms to the rules and acts accordingly then this means that the individual has accepted the social conventions, and at the same time he/she is accepted by society. Therefore, in this case, this event acts as a metaphor of a person acting against the social rules. The incident evokes a sense of control and suppression towards the students. Not stepping on the school insignia seems like an easy and insignificant rule, but it could also be considered as an image of a person rejecting the social norm; this is frowned upon, and should immediately be dealt with, like the student does with Jim.

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. In schools, children were taught about nuclear power, watched documentaries and succumbed to practice drills in case of a nuclear destruction. 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 had definitely 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. The teenagers’ fear might act as an extra motive for the teenagers to be aggressive and rebellious against their parents and thus, the society.

Lost Sense of Honour: the Character of 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 with his parents and grandmother. In the opening shot Jim Stark is lying down on a street drunk next to a toy monkey (fig. 01). He gently grabs the toy and starts playing with it (the scene was entirely improvised by Dean). The use of a close shot and eye-level angle makes 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 foetal position. His facial reactions and motions, and especially his posture at the end of the shot highlight his innocence and childlike behaviour. The film successfully manages from its opening shot to make the audience relate and sympathise with the character. The shot also indicates that Jim still has a long way until he becomes an adult; and this is his character arc.

fig. 01

Jim is masterfully played by James Dean as the child living in a family with a domineering mother, strict grandmother and a submissive father. The first scene of the shows that Jim is taken to a police station because he was arrested wandering the streets drunk. The scene depicts his suppressed anger against the female figures of his family as well as, his disappointment due to the meek nature of his father. In the scene, in which 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 emphasise the character’s feelings of suppression and suffocation caused by his parents (fig. 02). 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 (fig. 03). His parents advise 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 his 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.

fig. 02
fig. 03. 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 sympathise with this character since they might see aspects of their self in him. Many teenagers during their adolescence realise that their parents are not the kind of people they thought they were. They start seeing their parents’ weaknesses and faults and become disappointed. Often, they wish to rebel in order 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 (fig. 04). 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, as they just moved in to a new town. 

fig. 04. 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 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 dichotomisation 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 emphasises his weak personality, and implies a sense of entrapment; the use of the feminine apron as part of his costume ‘humiliates’ the character completely.

There are a few points to raise here. Despite the claims of Jim that his father is weak, we do not see his father actually being a weak character or being suppressed by his wife. The couple seems to have a good relationship; they certainly argue, but that does not mean that their relationship is dysfunctional. The supposed weakness of the father as seen by Jim is only Jim’s perception of his father, and if we evaluate his position by today’s standards, we come to the conclusion that it is quite toxic. His perception of what a man is reeked with toxic masculinity. Wearing a kitchen apron and tending to your wife does not mean that the character is weak. This is not how a man is defined. During their conflict, Jim’s father does not ‘stand up’ for his son. He does not do it not because he is weak or scared of his wife, but because he agrees with her, and this brings another point of discussion.

Rebel Without a Cause is a kind of film that ‘changes’ depending on the age you watch it. 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. The film seemed totally different on the second watch. It seemed that the film is not only addressing the problems of misunderstood teenagers, but also the issues parents are facing while raising their children. When I watched Rebel Without a Cause as a teenager I completely related with the teenagers of the film and especially with the character of Jim. The angry and the rebellious nature of the character illustrated all confused 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 that he/she was finally understood.

But when I watched the film again as an adult, I saw something different, and it lies in one of the strongest scenes of the film, 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 his father 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 being 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 related to Jim. I thought that his father was not strong enough to help him, 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 very much related with the father. Children are taught that they are to follow a sense of honour: stand up for the weak man, always tell the truth, confess your lies. But as one grows up, realises that this is only a façade. There is no honour in society, nor among people. People act according to what is best for them; they do what they have to do in order to be safe, gain money or keep their position in the world. Honour in the world becomes a utopian concept. This is something that an individual learns as he/she grows up, and this is the lesson of Jim, and the precise reason why Jim’s father agrees with his wife and does not ‘stand up’ for his son. The ‘chickie run’ was an insignificant issue, and like his wife, believes that going to the police is wrong as it could affect Jim’s life. It is interesting to see both perspectives of father and son to be so masterfully portrayed, and to actually make the audience realise how a teenager can change and evolve into an adult. At the end of the film, we see a different Jim. He sees the consequences of not so well-thought-out actions: the death of his friend Plato.

fig. 05. 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. 

Plato’s death made Jim realise 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 (fig. 06). In 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 (fig. 07). This is a reflection (fig. 06), an opposite image of the first shot of Jim (fig. 01): the child has finally become an adult, and his character arc is finally complete. During the last shots, we see Jim’s father promising that he will be a much stronger and supportive father, and helps his son stand up. This means that he learned something from his son; he reevaluates his priorities and sees what is important to Jim, and how he can be a better father to him.

fig. 06
fig. 07

Becoming a Wife: the Character of Judy

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 had violently tried to smear off her lipstick since he thought that it is inappropriate for her because of her young age (fig. 08). 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.

fig. 08. 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 evokes the character’s anger as well as, expresses 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. 

This is an interesting topic and somewhat unusual for the 1950s as female sexuality was not so broadly explored in Hollywood then. The sexuality and sexual urges of teenagers, and especially of girls and women was a taboo subject; this has changed in the 1960s. An example is the film Splendor in the Grass (1961) by Elia Kazan, which was about a teenage couple questioning whether they should have sexual relations or not. Even though this character might have been considered as ground-breaking in the 1950s, nowadays might be regarded as anti-feminist. What is good about the character is that it brought to the light the sexuality of girls, which is a topic that men back then -and especially fathers- felt uncomfortable about, and chose to ignore. Nevertheless, in today’s modern society we might consider the character as anti-feminist in the sense that her acts and motivations throughout the film seem very man-oriented. One may argue that this derives from the rejection she feels from her father. 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 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 taking part in a race with stolen cars. 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, which was caused by her father’s behaviour, with another male figure. It seems that the film instead of focusing on her becoming a woman, we see her fulfill the role, which was acceptable and preferable then; she is now fit to become someone’s wife.

The film was released over 60 years ago, but it is still a cinematic masterpiece and has a rightful place among the best films of all time. Some aspects of the film have not ages so well, like Jim’s perception of his father, which some aspect of it reeks of toxic masculinity, and Judy’s anti-feminist character. Nevertheless, the ideas and themes of the film still hold up, such as the relationships between parents and their children, and the issues parents face trying to raise their kids. In the end, after all is said and done, growing up is never easy, and it is a comfort when someone recognises that.

Reference List

Graydon Carter (2008). Vanity Fair’s Tales of Hollywood: Rebels, Reds, and Graduates and the Wild Stories Behind the Making of 13 Iconic Films. Penguin Books. pp. 71–72.

Bosley Crowther (October 27, 1955). “The Screen: Delinquency; ‘Rebel Without Cause’ Has Debut at Astor”. The New York Times.