Overview: Three teenagers try to deal with bullies, parents, and their own burgeoning angst. Warner Bros; 1955; Rated PG-13; 111 Minutes
The Narrow Scope Iconography: Only a handful of movies are as deeply ingrained in America’s collective consciousness as Rebel Without a Cause. It’s the kind of movie that viewers assume they know before they ever see it. The image of James Dean in a white t-shirt and a red leather jacket has become shorthand for “rebellious, dangerous teenager.” There’s a lot more to Rebel Without a Cause than what pop culture has preserved.
Lost ‘Cause’: Because of the film’s immediately recognizable iconography, and its far reaching influence on teenage culture, we forget that Jim Stark (James Dean) isn’t much of a “rebel” at all. He comes into conflict with his parents and the values of their generation, but “rebel” implies that he takes some kind of deliberate action against them. Of course, that’s where the “Without a Cause” part of the title comes in. More than anything, Jim is confused by the adult world, and he finds his father’s guidance useless. He can feel that something is wrong, but he doesn’t know what it is and he certainly doesn’t know what to do about it. Jim’s “rebellion” is in his emotional nakedness; he refuses to bottle up his feelings. In the film’s opening scene, we see Jim drunk and belligerent in a police station. His intoxication lowers his guard, and he rants to an officer about all the problems in his life. Most films would’ve had a scene like this closer to the end, having built up the character’s emotional turmoil. Using it to introduce Jim lends important context to the rest of the film, especially since he’s so reserved around his peers.
An Existential Rebellion: A good chunk of the film’s action centers around Los Angeles’ Griffith Observatory. Early on, the characters take a field trip there to see a planetarium show. The show covers the inevitable death of the universe, and framing the film in a cosmic context reveals its universally human themes. Plato (Sal Mineo), always picked on for being small, is terrified by the immensity of the cosmos. His loneliness is amplified by his perception (and by extension our perception), of the Earth’s own loneliness. Both he and Jim are struck by the concept that the world could end at any moment, and this realization is the catalyst for Plato’s emotional breakdown. The bully Buzz (Corey Allen) and his thugs also try to deal with this existential dread. They pass the time with a game called “Chickie Run,” where two kids race cars towards the edge of a cliff to see who will bail out first. They engineer a situation in which they can have control over death, jumping out of the car being a direct assertion of that control. In order to cope with the inevitability of death, they turn it into a game. Rebel Without a Cause isn’t about teenagers dealing with hormones and puberty, it’s about teenagers dealing with the knowledge of their own mortality.
Overall: Rebel Without a Cause is remembered for all the things that it isn’t, but its commentary on human maturation remains as relevant now as it’s ever been.