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Screening History: “Ben-Hur”(1959)

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Some time ago, I wrote a 3-part series of blog posts about the rise and fall of the biblical epic (you can see them here, here, and here). At the time, I was just beginning to explore my dissertation. Since then, however, I’ve managed to write two chapters and have submitted the first draft of a third, and it actually looks like I’ll finish next year. Just as importantly, I’ve gained a more nuanced appreciation for the complexities of my favourite film genre, the historico-biblical epic.

Thus, when it came time to for the annual Oscar Blogathon, I thought, here’s a great opportunity to talk about one of my favourite Oscar-winning epic films, and give a little bit of an indication of how this film fits into my dissertation’s overall argument about the kind of experience of history that the historico-biblical epic provided for its postmodern spectators. So, here we go.

Historically, it’s important to remember that the film was produced in the context of the Cold War, in particular the growing threat that a nuclear holocaust might actually wipe out the entirety of human civilization. There was profound uncertainty throughout the immediate postwar decades about whether the atomic bomb was the weapon by which mankind would finally bring about the fiery oblivion that had been promised by prophets throughout the millennia. Further, many wondered whether it was possible (or even desirable) to attempt to stop this from happening, or whether the power of the bomb and the end of human history it promised should simply be accepted. The individual in the postwar world was not only vulnerable; s/he might in fact be thought of as irrelevant.

Industrially, this was also the period of Hollywood cinema when widescreen technology–which promised the spectator the ability to transcend spatio-temporal boundaries and to encounter a sense of presence with the ancient world–became increasingly widespread. While it had been inaugurated with another historico-biblical epic, The Robe, in 1953, several studios soon rolled out their own processes, for they understood that audiences needed something truly overwhelming and spectacular to draw them away from their living rooms. Indeed, MGM would make a great deal of the fact that their epic was produced in MGM Camera 65, and a production booklet for the film promised that the process promised even greater levels of participation and presence. One was invited to both participate in the action and to be overwhelmed by the majesty of the spectacle.

The aesthetics of the film make full use of this tension between agency and submission, and one can only imagine what it must have been like to be surrounded by the truly overwhelming spectacularity of it all. Imagine, for example, seeing the scene in which Judah must hide, unable to reveal himself to his mother, who has been stricken with leprosy. Imagine feeling as if you, the spectator, were there with Judah, yet also immobilized like him, unable to reach out and touch her, no matter how much your body aches to do so. While this can still be felt to an extent by viewing it on a large-screen HDTV, I daresay it doesn’t come close to measuring up to what the experience must have felt like when seeing it on the true widescreen. Small wonder that the film won the Oscar for Best Cinematography-Color.

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The chariot race, one of the most visceral and exciting sequences in the history of cinema (made all the more so by the widescreen technology used to bring it to life).

Further, one can sense throughout the film–at both the formal and narrative levels–an oscillation between agency and impotence. No matter how hard Judah tries to do the right thing, he finds his agency circumscribed by forces he cannot name nor control. He can do nothing to save his family from their imprisonment, he cannot save himself from his enslavement in the galleys (it is through the capricious whim of the Roman Arrius that he is freed from his chains and thus allowed to escape the sinking ship), he can do nothing to save his mother and sister (they are purged of leprosy by the Crucifixion), and he cannot even really win the chariot race (he both places his eventual fate in God’s hands and his nemesis Messala is ultimately brought down by his own vindictiveness). There’s no denying, though, that Judah is a spectacular sufferer.

There is, then, something exquisite and beautiful about this suffering, in no small part because of the star text of Heston (who won the Oscar for Best Actor). While I am not Heston’s biggest fan, he makes a fantastic epic hero precisely because everything that is thrown at him makes him stronger. Much has been written about the way in which his chiseled facial features and imposing physicality ensured that he always appeared tightly wound, ready to erupt into violence at any moment. That is certainly true in this film; even when he is chained in the galleys, Heston’s Judah is a slab of muscled flesh, an object of erotic fascination and muscular identification. We know that the years of servitude have only hardened his body until it becomes the perfect weapon, the perfect means of effecting his vengeance against the man who wronged him and his family.

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The exquisitely erotic suffering of Heston’s Judah Ben-Hur.

Yet for all if its beauty, the world that this film depicts is a place of dark and terrifying brutality. The chariot race is, of course, one of the most memorable events in the history of cinema, but it is also an indication the rather Hobbesian mentality that governs this world. Life for many is, indeed, nasty, brutish, and short, as indicated by the many charioteers who perish during the course of the race. Messala, struggling to stay alive long enough to taunt his old enemy, suggests as much when he defiantly informs Judah that the race goes on. All the blood that now stains the sands of the Circus are but the precursor, he suggests, to an ongoing set of conflicts and strife that will continue to rock the Roman world as it is gradually replaced by Christianity.

In the end, of course, the film has to pay at least some attention to the fact that it is “a tale of the Christ,” and so it ensures that his own journey to the Cross intersects with Judah’s attempt to rescue his family. Indeed, it is the Crucifixion itself that washes them clean of their affliction, thus rendering possible the reconstitution of the family and Judah’s spiritual peace. What strikes me as particularly compelling about this fact is that it renders the rescue of the afflicted family a matter undertaken by the suffering Christ rather than anything done by Judah. In an age in which individual human agency seemed to have become impossible, it makes sense that the film would displace Judah’s historic ability to effect change in his world onto the film’s (largely  unseen) Christ.

Ben-Hur was in many ways the apex of the cycle of historico-biblical epics that had begun with Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah in 1949. While the cycle would produce several other high-profile and profitable hits, it would never attain quite the level that this film did, and none would manage to grab as many Oscars. Indeed, Ben-Hur’s Oscar haul would be unmatched until Titanic 40 years later. This film showed what was possible when a supremely talented director (William Wyler) was paired with a great cast, fine writing, and the seemingly unlimited financial capacity of the most glamourous and resplendent film studios (MGM, in the person of producer Sam Zimbalist, who sadly died before the film was completed). While other epics might be more glamourous or more historically sophisticated (Cleopatra in 1963 or The Fall of the Roman Empire in 1964), they just couldn’t quite measure up to the splendid achievements of Ben-Hur. 

In terms of scholarship, there have been a number of recent essays and books published about this film. Of particular interest is Jon Solomon’s monograph Ben-Hur: The Original Blockbuster. This book provides an extensive overview of this story, beginning with Lew Wallace’s original novel. You should also check out Bigger than Ben-Hur, which is a collection of essays published by Syracuse University Press. Don’t let the university press designation scare you off; the essays are quite accessible and shed a great deal of light on how a 19th Century novel continues to exert a powerful hold on the contemporary imagination. Film scholar Ina Rae Hark has a compelling essay on the nature of erotic suffering in the 1959 film.

Even now, after almost 60 years after its initial release, Ben-Hur does indeed remain “The Entertainment Experience of a Lifetime,” a testament to the might, the power, and the majesty of Old Hollywood and, just as importantly, to the enduring fascination of the world of ancient Rome.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my entry in this year’s Oscar Blogathon. If you’d like to leave your own reflections or appreciations on the film, I’d greatly appreciate it!

All About Eve

Screening Classic Hollywood: “All About Eve” (1950)

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This post is part of the “Try It, You’ll Like It!” Blogathon, hosted by Sister Celluloid and Movies Silently, where we write about “gateway films” that might bring non-classic-film lovers into the fold! For all the entries, click here!

All About Eve has long been one of my favourite films.  With its sharply written and snappy dialogue, its flawless casting, and its compelling and somewhat disturbing reflections on the nature of stardom and fandom in the Hollywood system, the film serves as a great entry point for those interested in classic Hollywood cinema (hence my focus on it for this blogathon).  If you are looking for a film that gives you insight into the workings of Hollywood in its golden age, look no further than All About Eve.

The film follows the fraught relationship between Margo Channing (Bette Davis), a strong-willed and successful Broadway actress and her protege and later replacement Eve (Anne Baxter).  While Eve begins the film as the starstruck fan of Margo, it becomes increasingly clear that she has designs on both the career of her idol and her husband.  While she ultimately succeeds in supplanting Margo in the eyes of the consuming public, she also becomes increasingly jaded and cynical, the victim of her own ambitions.  The film ends with Eve herself obtaining a young protege, one who might perpetuate the cycle.

The film, like others of the period (including Sunset Boulevard), remains interested in the contours and nature of female stardom.  Of course, given that this is 1950s Hollywood, it should come as no surprise that the thoroughly empowered and career-minded Margo eventually decides to largely withdraw from that aspect of her life in order to focus on her frayed marriage.  She realizes, as any “good” 1950s woman would, that she will gain much more satisfaction out of her domestic life than she will as an actress.   However, given that this is Bette Davis we’re talking about here, there is no small amount of ambiguity about how seriously we as viewers are supposed to take her supposed domestication (in my opinion, not very.  How can you domesticate Bette Davis, after all?)

In marked contrast, Eve is as rapacious as she is talented, striving to take everything that she wants, regardless of who she has to step on or who she has to hurt on her way to both career and sexual happiness.  What makes her sinister, of course, is that she appears to be so genuine.  Indeed, we are led to believe that, like so many fans in classical Hollywood films, she has allowed the boundary to dangerously blur between her own identity and that which she wants to become.

More insidiously, the film also seems to suggest that female friendship is either inherently toxic and catty or, alternatively, a slipper slope into the danger zone of desire.  It always remains slightly unclear whether Eve desires to be Margo, desires her (and thus attempts to to satisfy that desire by trying to seduce her husband), or some combination of the two.  And it is precisely this ambiguity that gives the film its bite.

Thus, the queer overtones in this film are hard to miss (see below for a couple of great books that discuss the film in some detail), and both Baxter and Sanders seem to relish their roles as the two devilishly queer characters.  Addison, not surprisingly, considers himself a Svengali and tries to mold Eve into the kind of woman that he wants to her to be and she, likewise, wants to do what she wants to do.  The ongoing tension between the two of them makes for one of the more compelling and deliciously corrupt parts of the entire story.

What really stands out, however, is the ending, in which a star-struck young fan manages to sneak into Eve’s room.  The last shot of the film is of this young woman, holding Eve’s trophy in front of a set of mirrors, her reflection stretching off infinitely into the future.  We are left in no doubt that the cycle of which Eve herself was a part will continue, that she will one day be replaced by a younger, more vivacious version of herself.  And unlike Margo, she probably will not have domestic bliss as a solace.

All About Eve is one of those splendid films that uses the conventions of classic Hollywood to cast a light on the ways in which the film industry is a cyclical monster, pulling in and spitting out its stars, particularly women.  However, it is also a relentlessly and bitingly enjoyable film, one of the great gems of old Hollywood.  Just as importantly, it highlights that one thing that makes the old films so much fun:  the dominance of women.  For all of its latent (and sometimes overt) misogyny, classical Hollywood was an industry and a system that relied on the glamour of its female stars.  And All About Eve shows why such a system worked so well for so long.

If you’d like to read more about queer readings of All About Eve, I recommend Robert Corber’s book Cold War Femme and Patricia White’s Uninvited as excellent starting points.

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Screening Classic Hollywood: “Sudden Fear” (1952)

Say what you will, but no one could play a victimized, melodramatic heroine like Joan Crawford.  Her talents in this area are certainly on conspicuous display in the 1952 film Sudden Fear, in which she plays a popular and successful playwright Myra, who falls for a moderately talented actor Lester (Jack Palance), only to discover that he, along with his former lover Irene (Gloria Grahame) have hatched a plot to kill her.  Fortunately, she’s quite a bit brighter than they are, and so she manages to escape from them.  In the end, Lester runs over Irene in the mistaken belief that she is Myra (they are wearing a similar scarf), killing both himself and her.

One of the most compelling things about this film is the way in which it plays with voice.  It is due to the inadvertent recording of his plot by a dictaphone that Lester and Irene utilize to hatch their scheme.  The disembodied voice continues haunts Myra, an ethereal reminder of the fact that the man she has (admittedly foolishly) fallen in love with has decided that she is to be dispensed with in favor of his own desire for wealth.

There is something intensely, almost viscerally satisfying, about the fact that Lester, in his desire to kill his well-meaning and benevolent wife, ends up killing both himself and his conspirator.  Myra may be somewhat of a foolish and impulsive heroine, falling in love with a man that she barely knows and rendering herself vulnerable by attempting to leave her money and wealth to him.  However, it is precisely her generousness of spirit that makes Lester’s betrayal of her all the more despicable.  What’s more, he is absolutely ruthless in his attempts to kill her, chasing her relentlessly through the streets of San Francisco, his face and eyes becoming increasingly crazed as she continues to elude him.  Not surprisingly, we in the audience continue to cheer her on, and we feel vindicated at the poetic justice of his own destruction.

Crawford and Palance make for a compelling and somewhat unusual screen couple.  Palance was not the most handsome of movie stars, and his near-skeletal features always rendered him more appropriate for villainous roles.  He manages here to tap into a powerful male rage, one engendered in both the film’s diegesis and the broader culture by the ever-present male fear of not being able to provide or earn a living on his own.  You can practically see it seething beneath the surface, those deep-set eyes betraying the fury ever-ready to burst into the world.  Crawford offers a nice balance to him, a woman who has built her own successful career as a writer and who possesses a fundamental strength of character that allows her to survive the attempts to kill her.  However, she also exudes a certain measure of vulnerability, a willingness to believe, however foolishly, that she can also have love and completion with the man (seemingly) of her dreams.

In many ways, this film feels a bit out of its time, combining as it does the heightened emotions and victimized womanhood of the women’s films of the 1930s and the darkness of the film noirs of the 1940s.  Somehow, though, it manages to bring all of these elements together into a compelling film, and that final image of Myra/Crawford striding into the camera, head flung back in triumph, really brings it all together.  It is a stunning and uplifting reminder of the power of the Crawford star persona.  Even decades after her death, this persona manages to combine female strength and vulnerability in one indelible image that retains its power.

Score:  9/10

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Screening Classic Hollywood: “Executive Suite” (1954)

As I’ve been writing and researching my dissertation, I have increasingly come to appreciate just how complicated and contradictory a decade the 1950s really were.  Shrouded as we are in the noxious cloud of nostalgia (courtesy, in large part, of the current iteration of the Republican Party), it’s quite easy to forget this was a decade that was riven by deep and often irresolvable tensions that many films, no matter how hard they tried, could never entirely resolve into coherent ideological visions.  Such is the case with the 1954 Executive Suite.

The film’s plot might seem a bit convoluted at first glance, but it is actually quite simple.  After furniture magnate Avery Bullard drops dead in the street, the other members of the Treadyway corporation begin vying with one another for executive control.  Among them are Don Walling (William Holden), Loren Shaw (Frederic March), and Frederick Y. Alderson (Walter Pidgeon).  While Walling and Alderson, unsurprisingly, represent a purer, more authentic vision for the company, Alderson is primarily interested in maintaining a faster pace of production and impressing the company’s stockholders.  After a great deal of manipulation and uncertainty, the board ultimately elects Walling to serve as the new head of the company, his vision certain to take the company into a new and brighter future.

Like so many films of the 1950s, Executive Suite expresses a profound cynicism and downright hostility to the postwar world of prefabricated homes and mass produced furniture.  The film seems to yearn for an earlier period, when furniture was made by hand and the workers could take pride in their craftsmanship.  Although it would be going too far to suggest that the film is socialist or Marxist in its orientation, it does seem to possess a peculiarly sharp sense of the alienation the worker experiences in the period of mass production.  While it stops short of advocating a truly Marxist or socialist solution to the problem of alienation, it does suggest that the post-war world should take a long, hard look at itself if it hopes to rediscover the sole of its creativity and restore a measure of its previous vitality.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Holden emerges from this film as the voice of reason and justice, and it is also not surprising that the film attempts to resolve the problems it has posed by  ensuring that he takes over the company in the end.  As always, Holden is likable enough in this role, although there is also a bit of edge to him that keeps me from being totally invested in him as the hero.  For some reason, that subtle hint of self-righteous arrogance–which I am sure was a large part of his appeal during the height of his stardom–keeps him from being completely and unambiguously heroic.  (I would also say the same of his other two iconic roles, Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard and Hal Carter of Picnic).  While he may have this edge, however, the film clearly wants us to see this is a necessary corrective to the bland, cutthroat masculinity that March’s Shaw so obviously represents in the film’s representational system.

Though his star shone quite brightly during his time at MGM, Walter Pidgeon seems to be one of those stars of classical Hollywood who never really made an impression that lasted beyond the height of his career.  Unlike other MGM stars (such as, say, Clark Gable), he just seemed to lack that certain something that would render him into a true icon.  However, here in Executive Suite he lends the affair a significant measure of gravitas, with his deep voice and commanding (if seemingly unassuming) stage presence.  Even more than Holden, he really serves as the story’s moral center, and that is the type of role in which Pidgeon really did excel.

If there’s on complaint I have about this film, it’s that it makes far too little of Stanwyck.  Of course, her most notable and enduring performances emerged during the 1930s and 1940s, but still, one would think that MGM could have done a little better in utilizing this formidable female talent.  She does have a few noteworthy scenes–as when she receives the news that Bullard is dead, which features her throaty voice and obvious grief–but for the most part the film seems unsure what exactly to do with her.

Overall, however, Executive Suite stands as a fascinating example of a period struggling to make sense of itself.

Score:  8.5/10

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Screening Classic Hollywood: “Shane” (1953)

In keeping with the western theme I seem to have going on “Screening Classic Hollywood,” today’s film is George Stevens’s Shane, released in 1953 and starring Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur, and Van Heflin.  Shane (Ladd) is a roaming gunman who enters a seemingly idyllic valley.  Once there, he quickly becomes embroiled in the growing conflict between the homsteaders (led by Van Heflin’s Joe Starrett) and the cattle ranchers (led by Rufus Ryker, portrayed by Emile Meyer).  Tensions continue to mount until Shane ends up slaying Rufus and several of his hands, after which he rides out of the valley, as Jim’s young son Jimmy cries out for him to come back.

At first glance, Alan Ladd makes something of an unusual choice for a roaming gunslinger; he does not have the imposing physical presence of a Wayne, for example, nor the grace of a Randolph Scott.  Nevertheless, there is something disarmingly charming about his portrayal, which in turn grants a measure of humanity to his otherwise sociopathic figure, a hint that perhaps, beneath his loner exterior, there is a measure of interiority and softness that saves him from being an absolutely cold-hearted killer.   The obvious chemistry that simmers between him and Joe’s wife Marian (Arthur) and Joey (Joe’s son), hints at the life that could await Shane if he would but give up his wandering ways, settle down, and accept the new rule of order and domesticity.  Of course, such a settling down is an impossibility for the western hero, and so that possibility is infinitely deferred.

The most compelling character, however, has to be Jack Palance’s Jack Wilson, the gunman brought in to do away with Shane and cow (pardon the pun) the homesteaders into submission and flight from the valley.  The dispassionate ease with which he dispatches local homesteader Stonewall is truly chilling, and is in keeping with Palance’s midcentury star persona (he became quite famous for playing villainous and sometimes sociopathic characters, such as Simon the Magus in The Silver Chalice, released the following year).  What is most unsettling, however, is the underlying similarity between Wilson and Shane; though they exhibit widely different personalities, they are in essence the same kind of person, loners and killers whose very presence threatens the stability and order of the home.

Opposed to both of these figures are not only the homesteading men (such as Van Heflin’s rather worn-looking Joe), but their families.  Arthur seems a bit miscast as Marian, and she often comes across as an unpleasant mixture of simpering and strident, as she attempts to keep both of the men in her life from endangering themselves and the life that she has so assiduously cultivated.  Similarly, Brandon De Wilde is also somewhat screeching as Joey, often erupting onto the scene in bursts of unruly energy that are unpleasant precisely because they disrupt the peace and serenity of the house (his scenes are frequently punctuated by his imitations of shooting, and he is constantly asking Shane to teach him how to shoot).

Domesticity and its denizens do not seem like such a pleasant alternative, but neither does the other possibility.  The cattelmen are a group of rough-edged loners who care nothing about the other residents of the valley.  They frequently heap insults upon their fellows and, as we have seen, they are not afraid to stoop to extreme violence when it proves necessary (in their view, in any case).  While the film seems to ultimately side with domesticity–with the cattlemen and their ilk dead, Shane riding off into the sunset–there is a note of melancholy about this, a feeling that something has been lost in this battle for the soul of the valley (and perhaps for America as a whole).

Unsurprisingly, the film ends with the admission that the world Shane has helped to bring into being–one defined more by the bonds of family and stability than by the lone wolf mentality of the cattlemen–also has no place for him.  As he says to the young Jimmy, “There’s no living with a killing,” a profound statement that makes it all too clear that his type of masculinity has become increasingly superfluous to the gradually-domesticated wilderness.  Further, the film does not shy away from showing us the savagery of the conflicts that shaped much of the western part of the United States (indeed, Bosley Crowther made a point of mentioning such in his review for the film).  Joey’s strident cries for Shane to return–calls that go unheeded–sound the final note, one faintly sour and unsatisfactory one.

All in all, Shane is one of Stevens’s better works, a rather thoughtful and sad reflection on the gradual decline of a certain way of living, a recognition that beneath the veneer of adventure that dominates ideas of the west, there lurks a more troubling set of issues and contradictions that are not so easily resolved.

Score:  8/10

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Screening Classic Hollywood: “Rebel Without a Cause”

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.