Friday, October 1, 2021

Rebel Without a Cause

Director Nicholas Ray (right) with James Dean

Ray with Sal Mineo, Natalie Wood, and James Dean

Ray with Natalie Wood and James Dean

Natalie Wood and James Dean

James Dean













REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE           A                                                                                       USA  (111 mi)  1955  ‘Scope  d:  Nicholas Ray

My idol—a legend, the outcast Hollywood rebel, white hair, black eye-patch, and a head full of subversion and controlled substances.                                                                                         —Jim Jarmusch, one of his former film students, describing Nicholas Ray, Dangerous Talents | Vanity Fair

A searingly emotional work about troubled adolescents whose parents simply don’t understand their sense of abject alienation, displaying the coming-of-age ritual customs and behaviors of troubled teenage conformity and rebelliousness in their rite of passage to adulthood.  James Dean’s most iconic performance, a stand-in for an entire generation of teenagers, unforgettable in his blue jeans, white shirt, and red jacket, remaining the central figure of the film as Jim Stark, a confused middle class loner who’s tired of remaining on the outside, who fights his way inside one of those high school closely-knit, nearly inpenetrable social cliques, even at the risk of losing his life.  Along the way he impresses Natalie Wood as Judy, and is idolized by one of the loneliest characters ever conceived in American cinema, Sal Mineo as perennial outcast Plato, a homoerotic part described by Mineo as “the first gay teenager in films,” with both Wood and Mineo nominated for best supporting Oscars, arguably the first person nominated for playing an LGBTQ character, originally planning an onscreen kiss between Dean and Mineo.  Nominated in the best actor category in both his other films, the Academy criminally neglected Dean’s memorable performance here, a stunning oversight, particularly in view of who else was nominated, including Dean himself for EAST OF EDEN (1955), as it blows them all out of the water, including his other two performances, with this picture turning James Dean into an immortalized star, ingrained into American culture and beyond, held on the same star plateau as Elvis and Marilyn Monroe, like a time capsule, forever defined by this role, still revered more than half a century later.  While there is an implicitly conservative message of conformity and adhering to traditional norms of the 1950’s, including that of the suburban, nuclear family which reinforces heterosexual unions, yet their distinctively different three-way friendship is not like any other, remaining in a class by itself, profoundly influential in its yearning for connection, expressed in the repressed sexual desires inherent in their characters.  And therein lies the dramatic staying power of this film, described as the personal favorite of Ray, with towering lead performances for the ages, unique in its sensitive depiction of the formulative teenage years, struggling to find moral integrity in a world surrounded by adult complacency and blatant disinterest, with loving but patronizing parents who haven’t a clue who their own children are, or why they have to associate with bullies and thugs at school, whose parents probably represent a high social standing in the community, yet remain blind to their own children, becoming an indictment of parental responsibility, abdicating their role, providing no moral framework for their children.  Let’s remember, the timing of this film comes on the heels of the red-baiting House Un-American Activities Committee investigations in the era of McCarthyism, when America’s highest institutions of authority were running amok, creating an authoritative void.  Into this world, teenagers enter a strangly personalized realm, beautifully captured in intimate close ups and daring confrontations with one another, never more vulnerable, yet placing themselves at risk physically.  Tragedy befalls many who don’t survive, while another tragedy is that so many others come so close to the same fate.  With emotional bombs going off in every which direction, kids learn how to survive off the tragedies of others.  After obtaining the rights to psychiatrist Dr. Robert M. Lindner’s 1944 novel, Rebel Without a Cause: The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath, about a disturbed, incarcerated youth whose violent past was revealed under hypnosis, it was intended as a black and white, juvenile delinquency-themed B-movie, something along the likes of Blackboard Jungle (1955) that was released just 6 months earlier, originally intended to star Marlon Brando, but they couldn’t sign him, instead turning this into glorious color on CinemaScope, shot by GONE WITH THE WIND’S Ernest Haller in a work adapted by Stewart Stern and Irving Schulman, nearly discarding the entire novel altogether, while entrusting the project to James Dean, attempting to portray the moral decay of today’s youth, exploring the conflicts between generations, released just a month after Dean’s tragic death in a car accident, which only added to the film’s mystique, remaining the only movie he ever headlined with top billing.  Hailed as the first rock star, emulated by both Elvis Presley and John Lennon, James Dean would become an icon for American youth, providing the rock star template by living fast and dying young, as did co-stars Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood, as she drowned under mysterious circumstances while he was stabbed in an apparent bungled robbery.  Dennis Hopper as Goon, one of the gang, had his part trimmed once Ray discovered Natalie Wood was seeing him, with Ray trying to have him fired, but he was under contract.  Hopper survived into his later years, yet he emulated that flame-out rock star lifestyle his entire life.  Prior to the shoot, the bisexual Nicholas Ray (aged 43) was having an affair with an underaged 16-year old Natalie Wood, becoming lovers just a week after her original screen test, while also having another affair with 16-year old Sal Mineo (The Bad & the Beautiful: Hollywood in the Fifties), personal obsessions, perhaps, that revealed the borderline edge and depths of his own artistry, which would be viewed today as criminal behavior, no less than Roman Polanski’s crime that sent him into exile in Europe to avoid arrest, yet what are we to make of it now, as the man is long gone, yet his works are immortalized, taking on their own artistic identity, where few hold a candle to this one.  The idea of a troubled teenager identifying as misunderstood youth was just becoming a social reality, emphasized by male anxiety, despair, and isolation, while youth culture would explode just a few years later, with this film opening the floodgates. 

The quintessential juvenile delinquent film from this period, yet never released as a teen film, it’s an adult film that just happens to star teenagers, told from their perspective for a change, and still the best of all the youth movies as a result.  The combustible force of combining Nicholas Ray with James Dean is the most remarkable aspect of the picture, two deeply introverted, damaged souls combining their talents into something highly personalized and uniquely original, yet in a mainstream Hollywood studio setting, where Ray’s poetic expressionism, including his use of light, space, and motion are all uniquely in sync with the emotions of the characters.  Spanning 24-hours in the life of Jim Stark on his first day of high school (filmed at Santa Monica High School), having moved from place to place throughout the years, always running from various troubles, with parents pretending those troubles don’t exist, that they’ll simply disappear in their next destination.  In an unusual opening, Stark is sprawled out on the street dead drunk, eventually hauled into the police juvenile division for plain drunkenness, yet showing unusual delicacy in the matter, interviewed by Inspector Ray Fremick (Edward Platt), the only truly responsible adult figure in the film, displaying social worker skills that were almost non-existent in the police profession following WWII, exclusively female-oriented prior to that, yet Ray’s depiction of the police offering friendly help and guidance to wayward youth is idealized in this film, portraying police as we wish them to be, readily available while helpfully establishing trust, displaying inordinate patience, as opposed to how they are perceived today, routinely targeting minorities, historically fabricating inaccurately self-selving reports, selectively disabling body surveillance cams, with a reputation for being anxiously trigger-happy, with a long line of dead minority victims to show for it (Police shootings database 2015-2021 - The Washington Post).  But this is a Hollywood rendition, blissfully viewing police as a potential cure for juvenile delinquency and all that ails misguided youth, where all you have to do is listen and show them a little understanding, all reflected in the opening montage of three distinctly different troubled youth hauled in for questioning, Stark for drunkenness, frustrated by the endless bickering of his parents, Judy for a curfew violation, craving affection from her father (William Hopper) who is disturbed by her budding sexuality, calling her a “dirty tramp,” even slapping her for kissing him on the mouth (where it would not be hard to read incestuous undertones), while Plato, abandoned by his family since he was an infant, raised by a black domestic housekeeper, was brought in for killing a litter of puppies, unable to offer any explanation, yet clearly he is crying out for help.  Through this revolving door, ushered into interview rooms with glass windows, they can see and interact with the others who have been brought in, each plagued by problems at home, with Plato immediately drawn to Jim, perhaps the only person in the world who has treated him with kindness.  Yet we also see Jim’s dysfunctional parents, who he collectively labels a “zoo,” continually arguing with one another, with the perpetually domineering mother (Ann Doran) and the constantly interfering grandmother (Virginia Brissac) continually browbeating the helpless husband (Jim Backus), who never stands up for himself, or for Jim, even seen at one point wearing an apron around the house, where he has effectively been emasculated, leaving Jim so exasperated that at one point he famously screams “You’re tearing me apart.”  Ray explored similar territory before in the Depression-era film They Live By Night (1948), expounding on familiar themes, like doomed romance, the rhapsodic intimacy of young love, adolescent flights of fantasy, a safe place protected from the outside world, the ineffectual family structure, and having no reliable friends to turn to, where the depths of alienation are so deep that all these kids talk about is just being normal, where all they ever want is to have a chance in this world.  Delinquency and crime, however, were believed to be byproducts of postwar poverty, having a catastrophic effect on the family unit, so it’s curious that this social phenomenon would extend into the privileged lives of the upper middle class, where the family backgrounds remain unknown, with no one ever seen going to work, yet they are apparently prosperous, able to move from place to place, with young teenagers having complete access to cars.  This reflects the domesticated complacency of America in the 50’s, the era of television’s popular Father Knows Best (1954–1960), a paean to conservatism, positioning women in the home as housewives, where prosperity is taken for granted, never having to concern themselves with the actual details of work.

This film has an operatic quality about it, moving from one melodrama to the next, entering the film in full stream, dramatically drawing in the viewers, where it is emotionally unforgiving and relentless, maintaining that pace until the tragic end, with Ray using Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as his inspirational template, calling it “the best play written about juvenile delinquents.”  Using familiar landmark locations in Los Angeles, little time is spent in school, instead extended scenes develop at a field trip taken to the Griffith Park Observatory, finding refuge in a deserted mansion that is the William O. Jenkins House, a former Getty mansion also used in SUNSET BLVD. (1950), then returning at the end to the Griffith Planetarium, where early on students hear an astronomer’s lecture on the order of the universe, with the heavens seen spiraling out of control, exploding in an apocalyptic big bang finale, with planet earth disappearing into the empty blackness of space from whence it came.  Talk about foreboding! That’s just the opening appetizer for a tantalizing knife fight sequence (mirroring Shakespeare’s swordfight) on the outdoor steps, as Jim is taunted by a gang of youths led by Buzz (Corey Allen), with Judy at his side, deflating his car tire with a switchblade before challenging him to a fight.  Jim doesn’t back down, standing up for himself, perhaps surprising Buzz when he swats his knife away, bringing the knife to his throat before calling it off.  As if to save honor, Buzz proposes a chicken run later that evening, with two cars dashing off a cliff edge, where the first to jump out is a chicken.  That event is shown with a ritualistic flair, like a primitive scene of combat, using cars as weapons, driving fast and furiously as they approach a steep cliff overlooking the ocean far below.  In a surprising touch, as Jim and Buzz survey the landscape before the run, standing on the edge of the cliff, there is no animosity, with Buzz indicating under different circumstances he and Jim could become friends, but fate must intervene, holding each one accountable under these precarious conditions, where they have no choice but to face up to it, inviting danger to intercede, all before a Greek chorus of observers who silently witness Buzz sail off the cliff when his shirt gets caught on the door handle, sending him to his ultimate doom.  In what might be the most startling moment of the entire film, Judy transfers allegiances right there on the spot, without hesitation, as if Buzz was just an afterthought, shifting to the closest alpha-male in the vicinity, setting the stage for what follows.  Each has become strangely alienated from their own families, who fail to comprehend the ramifications, thinking only of themselves, while Jim grasps the larger picture, as a kid was killed, refusing to remain silent, knowing that contacting authorities is the right thing to do, even if his family encourages otherwise.  Thwarted in his search for Ray Fremick, who is out on call, Jim runs into the others who retain their animosity against him, believing he will rat them out, searching for a safe refuge.  Plato mentioned he often visits a deserted mansion in the Hollywood hills, inviting Judy to come along, with Plato finding his way there as well, becoming a transformed new family, rejecting everything their own parents stand for, promising to show real authenticity and concern, starting with one another.  Judy is stunned by this immediate transformation, finding it so easy to fall in love for the first time in her life, two outlaws on the run, happily in each other’s arms, with Plato as their adopted son, adoring Jim, wishing he was his own father, given a homoerotic subtext, making this a new-age relationship.  But Jim and Judy go off exploring the mansion, leaving Plato asleep and alone, only to find himself cruelly awakened by the gang searching for revenge, reverting into survival mode, hysterically shooting one of them, even shooting at one of the arriving policemen, utterly lost and alone, finding no way out but to flee the premises, wandering through the brush, finding his way to the safety of the Griffith Observatory, the place where it all began, with Jim and Judy in hot pursuit, with Jim finally settling him down, providing needed friendship and trust, cleverly removing the bullets from the gun before encouraging him to come outside, only to end in tragic circumstances in a useless police killing, a telling sign of decades of more tragedies to become, a tearful, heartrendering finale, with a crane shot pulling away, capturing the Observatory from a distance, where after everyone else has left, the lone man walking towards the building is none other than Nicholas Ray himself.    

No comments:

Post a Comment