When it comes to classic Hollywood, some directors and some films stand out from the others as truly defining a particular era. When it comes to the 1950s, certainly, few films have attained the iconic status of Rebel Without a Cause, and both the director (Nicholas Ray) and the star (James Dean) are some of the most recognizable names from this particular decade of Hollywood filmmaking. And such accolades are certainly deserved, for even if Ray had never made another film, and even if Dean had not already starred in East of Eden, this film would certainly have solidified their reputations in the film canon.
At the formal level, the film is marvelously shot, with lush colors (provided by WarnerColor), as well as sophisticated cinematography. Ray’s love of canted angles is on conspicuous display throughout, so that the image often conveys a sense of dislocation and unease, a feeling often heightened by the close framing of many key scenes (itself a significant move, considering the film was shown in CinemaScope, a widescreen process well-known for its deeply curved screen and enveloping proportions. One can only imagine that sense of anxiety the combination must have created for those fortunate enough to see it in this format). The film also features a rich color palette, with red one of the signature colors, ranging from Judy’s garishly red overcoat and lipstick in the beginning scenes to the famous red coat worn by Dean’s character Jim.
Of course, Dean well deserves the accolades he received (and continues to receive for his performance), as perhaps no other actor could convey the mingled anguish and apathy afflicting the post-war generation of young people (and, one could argue, the American populace as a whole). From his strangled vocal intonations that sometimes erupt into cries of emotional agony at the cultural and social milieu in which he finds himself, with parents who seem to not know how to give him what he needs and a group of teens who care little for the welfare of one another.
As with so many films of the 1950s, the threat of nuclear oblivion is never far away, though it becomes particularly evident in the scene at the planetarium. As the curator drones on, his dry observations about the nature of the universe are brutally interrupted by his suggestion that the end of mankind, and of Earth as a whole, would be of little concern to the great vastness of the rest of the universe. After all, isn’t this little planet we inhabit just a dot compared to everything else that stretches into the infinite?
In keeping with Ray’s sophisticated cinematographic imagination, the scene is punctuated by vivid imagery as lurid colors splash across the screen and across the watching teens, a potent reminder that their angst and ennui are part of a larger culture struggling to come to terms with its own significance or lack thereof. For a culture facing the possibility of the end of all things, even a film seemingly all about teen angst carries vestiges of the nuclear imagination, and the film can thus be seen as another iteration of the era’s film culture attempting to work through, or at least comprehend, the threat of annihilation.
Though this film is best remembered for Dean’s performance–and the added pathos that it was released after his untimely death–Mineo’s Plato is an equally compelling and tragic character. His obvious longing for Jim, a longing comprised of sublimated desire for a father and, I would argue, a queer longing that exceeds the pop Freudianism that permates the film, is one of the most haunting aspects of Rebel. Mineo exudes a certain fey quality that makes him endearing and pitiful at the same time, a marker of the conflicted position that many young queer teens of the time no doubt felt as they struggled to find their place in a culture that seemed determined to either ignore them altogether or render them into something pathologically terrifying (the ’50s produced such infamous films as Strangers on a Train).
The tensions that undergird the film find their ultimate release with the death of Plato that ends the film. Ray directs this scene with great finesse, allowing an alternation between heightened intensity and heartbreaking serenity. Judy’s quiet placing of Sal’s missing shoe on his foot is full of understated pathos, a mute reminder of this crazy world that has produced these tragic teens.