4 December 2006 | Quinoa1984
not my favorite Nick Ray film by far, but it's worth viewing as a "essential" from the 50s
I put quotations around the words "essential" in that one line because, really, I'm not totally sure what essential means really when it comes to seeing films from that decade. The general consensus- on which one might dub a film like Rebel Without a Cause overrated- is that this film is THE film on teenage angst and dislocation from the adults of the period, and that it's essential because of James Dean, or that it might be considered director Nicholas Ray's best film. For me though, "essential" is a very subjective term, and one person's essential being this film is another one's essential being Bigger Than Life or In a Lonely Place, films that get some notice in the film circles but not enough when placed against a film like the one here. It's the kind of picture I end up recommending, but not exactly under the terminology of how I would find it to be essential or not, because I don't really. It's not a sort of seminal, staggeringly entertaining and artistically satisfying work about being an outsider in the 50s like On the Waterfront or even one most people wouldn't think of like Ikiru. From a historical perspective, however, and for the significance of James Dean, it is worth a viewing, at least once, if you want to know at least what the industry leaned towards in the 50s.
Now, on to the actual film- it's the story of Jim Stark, who is disaffected and with a sort of glow about him (if glow is the word, maybe just, um, malaise), and its more of a reflection on his parents (Jim Backus, who is actually quite good here, and Ann Doran as his mother) than on society as a whole. Not that society doesn't have a part in Jim's emotional downward spiral. He's a kid who ends up getting connected to violence ('Don't call me chicken' is coined famously, and maybe unintentionally amusingly, by Dean in this film), and all the while Dean plays him very calmly and coolly, with his big emotional bursts strong and piercing. But as I've yet to see his other two big cinematic roles in East of Eden or Giant, I can't compare one to the other or not. On its own, his turn today almost borders on being too melodramatic, even too stuck in the period (Brando, as mentioned before, had the 'normalcy of detachment and cool' down to a T unlike Dean here who is good if not great). He's followed along by compelling supporting work by Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood, as equally disaffected youth, but in different ways that end up clinging the three of them together.
The story, as much as it tries to, isn't really as convincing as it tries to be, and unfortunately to me doesn't hold up like it should. The convincing bits are still there, and some scenes are revelatory into the little things about teenagers, like the trip inside the planetarium- no matter how tough they think they are or act or anything, they can still be amazed by some things, the unknown that is. And the fight that happens after-wards- along with the 'chickie' drag race at night that leads to a tragic turn of events- are classic Ray-directed moments. But the classically trained style of film-making by Ray, with the level of subversion still there under the surface of the immediate context, isn't as fulfilling when given to the story and characters and acting. Some characters are just outright silly or so one-dimensional that you can't believe someone like Dean's character would have to deal with them at all. Even an emotionally complex scene like the "it's tearing me apart" speech doesn't hit quite as hard as it might have in 1955. By the end of it all, I knew Rebel Without a Cause was worth viewing, but as an immediate masterwork of the Hollywood system? I'm not really sure on that, and certainly not if one's talking about essentials from the director. B+