Friday, October 12, 2007
10/12: Rebel Without a Cause
Rebel Without a Cause is today the movie for which James Dean is most fondly remembered. Even those who wouldn't even be able to tell you the least detail about the film's plot have probably heard the name and would recognize Dean's iconic appearance in the film, with his white t-shirt and bright red jacket. It's the kind of film that has in many ways been removed from the cinematic realm altogether, catapulted into the environs of pop culture, its actual qualities as a film largely disregarded in the fuss over Dean's legend. This is in some ways understandable; after all, Dean's legacy in the movies rests on just 3 roles, and neither of the others has quite the swagger and energy of this one. But it's shame in that there are probably few people nowadays who can come to this film without the weight of that legacy hanging over it, to appreciate the film on its own terms.
For me, the film is interesting not so much for Dean, but for director Nicholas Ray, whose In a Lonely Place I'd place among the best few films of the 50s. Rebel, made 5 years later, is not quite on the same plane as the earlier masterpiece, but it's still a fine film. The film introduces Dean, as the high school delinquent Jim Stark, drunk and stumbling into a fall so that he lies across the frame, his head towards the camera. As the credits roll, Dean plays with a toy monkey lying on the ground and passes out, a fitting introduction for this deeply troubled character. What's interesting about Dean's legacy is that he's often thought of as an archetypical tough guy, but his character here is sensitive, frustrated, lonely, and vulnerable. His constantly bickering family is the root of his troubles, and he comes across as desperate rather than tough. In this film, the insouciant posing and flippant attitude for which he is remembered come across as an act, a cover-up for his inner turbulence and lack of self-confidence.
For the first half of the film, this psychological aspect of Dean's tough-guy character is presented with a somewhat heavy hand, especially in the scene at the police station which opens the film. The script sometimes seems to have little faith in audiences to figure out those kinds of insights for themselves, and Dean's problems are initially spelled out in very obvious ways. His father (Jim Backus) is emasculated and unable to stand up to his wife (Ann Doran), who browbeats both him and Dean and refuses to tolerate even the least sign of family strife. She has carted the family around the country over the years, making them uproot and move every time a problem confronts them; she wants to be continually starting fresh, erasing the past and hoping that things will be better this time. In this repressed, unstable family environment, with no support or true communication, Dean naturally acts out and drifts into bad situations. But the main reason for his lack of confidence is the absence of a real father figure in his life. His father is early on established as a wishy-washy coward unable to stand up for anything or even to express his own opinions, especially to his wife. His father's cowardly streak is presumably the reason why Dean responds so vociferously when anyone calls him a chicken. If the point wasn't clear enough already, Backus shows up at a crucial point wearing a flowered apron as he cleans around the house, and when asked for advice by his son, all he can tell him is to write down a list of pros and cons before making a decision.
Naturally, Dean is infuriated by his father's inability to say anything of meaning, and he flees into a car race to prove his honor and bravery to the kids who taunted him at school. At this point, the car race forms a pivot point in the film, in which the audience hand-holding of the film's first half is largely discarded, and the film becomes much more interesting. If the first half of the film showed Dean and his female counterpart Natalie Wood as kids without a real family, the second half shows them forming their own family. Fucked-up, dysfunctional, ultimately doomed to be broken up, but still a much more smoothly functioning family than their real ones. The trio is completed by Sal Mineo, the younger kid who idolizes Dean from the start and seems to latch onto him as more of a father than a friend, a replacement for his own absent dad, who sends child support checks but nothing else. The trio mother, father, son runs away to an abandoned mansion, where they hole up hiding from the gangs of kids who want revenge on them. There's violence lingering in the air, especially in the form of the pistol that Mineo has stolen and stashed in his pocket, but it's on hold while the trio forms their own new family.
In an exceptional series of scenes that subtly develop the group's collective relationship, Ray shows the trio touring the huge house, lit by flickering candles, with Dean and Wood pretending to be newlyweds wanting to buy it. It's funny, light, and yet infused with undercurrents of real emotional depth. The characters are playacting, fulfilling fantasies, mocking the clichés of adult lives while simultaneously creating their own new idea of adulthood. The sequence culminates in a scene that arranges the "family" into a suggestive tableau of closeness, with Dean resting his head on Wood's lap and Mineo sitting at their feet, resting back against Dean's prone body. There is an undercurrent of homosexual desire here, running perpendicular to the dominant familial dynamic, an unexplored (and, in 1955, unexplorable) hint that Mineo is sexually attracted to this tough father figure. But this is clearly a sideline here, a repressed secret just as it would have been in the 50s nuclear family. So after Wood and Dean tuck Mineo in while he sleeps, they sneak off for a private moment.
Ray shows the couple in medium shot, with their faces seeming to blend together into one. Dean is seen from the side, with Wood's face half-obscured by the contours of his profile; surprisingly enough, it looks forward to such radical examples of facial blending as Persona, though the love scene context here is manifestly Hollywood material. It's through shots like this that Ray infuses even the film's obligatory material, like this love scene, with greater complexity and visual interest than is usually seen in a Hollywood melodrama. During an argument between Dean and his parents, the camera sways and tilts in response to the power shifts, as the characters jockey for position against each other on a cramped staircase. The scene comes to a head with Dean's mother poised on the stairs a few steps above him, with his father at the foot of the stairs, sitting crumbled and helpless to intervene. The camera, in response, is tilted to one side, exaggerating the hierarchy so that it becomes a drastically sloping downward line, like an arrow pointing at the ineffective father.
Ray's film isn't perfect as a whole. Its script is often heavy handed, and its themes would probably be better served by a much more subtle rendering at times. Its ending, too, though potent in many ways, wraps up some of the familial tensions at the story's core a bit too easily, and one senses that in some ways this is just bowing to the convention of the happy ending. But script flaws aside, Rebel Without a Cause is a powerful and probing examination of teenage loneliness and frustration with the inadequacy of the family structure. That a film made over 50 years ago, and in some ways dated in its specifics, can still have so much to say about growing up and family relationships, is testament enough to its quality.