Directed by Nicholas Ray
Written by Stewart Stern
James Dean is a cult figure, at least in my mind. Mythical even. He is a name that so synonymous with cool, and for the longest time I had no idea why. I knew that he was a movie star, and that he had died tragically at much too young an age, but other than that I knew nothing of the man. It was this type of iconic status that sort of made me extremely interested in him, so it was a joy to finally sit down and watch one of his very few classic films, Rebel Without a Cause. But what is more is that I also get to be introduced to the equally iconic and tragic Natalie Wood. But heck, even Sal Mineo died an accidental death before his time at the mere age of 37. So needless to say, there was a bit of anticipation and mysticism for me going into this. And to be honest, it wasn’t as I had expected it, but I mean that in a good way.
Jim (James Dean) is a perennial trouble maker, which sparks problems at home and the perpetual movement of the family from town to town. Finally the Stark’s land in Los Angeles, though the filmmakers give it a small, suburb feel. Jim continues to get in trouble and soon meets a new friend in Plato (Sal Mineo) and a girl, Judy (Natalie Wood), whom he fancies if it weren’t for her problematic boyfriend Buzz (Corey Allen). As the new kid, Jim gets bullied, but because of the honor he feels, he stands up for himself, which just might make things even worse than they already seem to be.
I said this surprised me because it wasn’t quite as I expected and that is because of the character of Jim, played to perfection by James Dean, who is truly the king of cool. But I would have figured he was the king of cool because he was a slick rebel who was smart enough, and pretty enough to get any girl he wanted. But instead I was treated to a young man, troubled as he may be with his quarrels with the authorities, who was extremely sincere and stood up for what he believed in. Yes he smoked, yes he slicked his hair back, and yes he acted cool, but it was his gentlemanly attributes that attracted me both to the character of Jim and the actor who played him with such bravado, charisma, and strangely enough, humanity.
The film was not perfect and there are a couple things that sort of bugged me for whatever reason, like the score, but none to the extent that it ever turned me off. The story was a good set up for the exploration of these characters, young adults on the brink of love and adulthood, searching for who they were and where they were going in life. But that is just it, a set up. I was somewhat confused by the reactions of the characters after a fairly traumatic event occurred. They were not as shocked as I would have expected, but then again, they are rebellious youths, so perhaps they don’t know any better. They would be all the better for it.
There were some really nice camera things that director Nicholas Ray, who came up with the story, was able to execute. And overall the direction of the film was solid because it seemed like Ray knew what he was working with: great charismatic actors who know how to fill a screen. And that is what I will take from the film the most: the actors. It was the first time I had seen Dean, and I know it will not be the last because he was awesome, and yes, cool. It was the first time I had seen Wood, and I know it will not be the last because she too is cool, but she is also elegant, beautiful, and equally charismatic. And lastly, Sal Mineo, who doesn’t quite measure up to the great Dean and Wood, surely has a couple more performances like this in his bag.