Rebel Without a Cause Review

The events of Rebel Without a Cause take place over a period of twenty-four hours. A drunk Jim Stark (James Dean) is collected from the police station by his parents, who are concerned by his behaviour but seem quite unable to get through to him. Also at the station are a disturbed boy, Plato (Sal Mineo), arrested for killing some puppies, and a girl, Judy (Natalie Wood), picked up for walking around the streets after dark. The following day, Judy’s boyfriend Buzz (Corey Allen) and his gang set upon Jim. After a knife fight, they challenge Jim to a “chicken run”. Jim accepts, not knowing what it is – a decision that will have fateful, and fatal, consequences.

Rebel Without a Cause is the definition of a certain type of cult film. Although it was a popular success in its day, it continues to attract a following as it contains the defining role of a particular cult actor, namely James Dean. (And to a lesser extent, as the work of a cult director, Nicholas Ray.) Dean wasn’t a teenager when he made the film, although he plays one – Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo were genuine minors – but this film is the foundation of his rebel persona. The concept of the “teenager” was just beginning in the mid 1950s, and Rebel was a touchstone for it. It embodied a sense that the world was changing but the very conformist society of the time didn’t and wouldn’t recognise it. If the parents are a little caricatured in this film, then that’s because it’s made from the teens’ point of view. There’s a sense that Dean’s character Jim Stark embodied a truth that the older generation couldn’t accept and didn’t understand. So a rift opened between generations, to widen still further in the next decade.

The film was originally to be shot in black and white, as would be expected for a realistic contemporary drama at the time. However, Warners decided that Rebel would be shot in the then-new process of CinemaScope. However, a few days after shooting had started, someone read the small print in the CinemaScope licence: all Scope productions had to be in colour. (This rule was relaxed a few years later, after pressure from directors and cinematographers.) This was Ray’s first film in the process. If Elia Kazan in East of Eden had seemed a little selfconscious in his use of the wider ratio, Ray took to it, and all his subsequent Hollywood films bar one (Wind Across the Everglades) were either in CinemaScope or Technirama. Ray had studied architecture under Frank Lloyd Wright, and buildings and locations played a large part in his work. Ignore Dean for a moment, and what comes back from this film are the places: the police precinct, the Starks’ house, the planetarium, the abandoned house. Ray also makes bold use of colour: for example, Jim’s red jacket, which becomes a motif in the plot. (That’s Ray walking away from the camera in the final shot.)

Indeed, Ray’s framing plays a vital part of Dean’s performance. Frequently he will have Dean at one side of the frame, in opposition to other characters. Dean’s body language is essential to his acting. Watching almost any film from the “high Scope” era panned and scanned is a bad idea, but in this case panning and scanning simply isolates him, making him a rebel not only without a cause but without anything to rebel against.

Amongst the rest of the cast, Natalie Wood and Jim Backus had things to prove, graduating to serious adult roles from, respectively, child stardom and comic roles. (Backus was best known as the voice of the cartoon character Mr Magoo.) Both acquit themselves well, although if Backus’s father character comes over as an inept joke, that’s the way it was written. Much has been speculated about homoerotic overtones between Sal Mineo (gay) and Dean (arguably bisexual)…well, overtones are there for you to find them, especially in some of Plato’s lingering gazes at Jim. Dennis Hopper, then a teenager, plays one of Buzz’s gang.

Rebel Without a Cause caused censorship difficulties in 1955. The script had undergone edits by order of the Hays Office, but despite that certain American towns and cities banned the film. The British Board of Film Censors (as it was then called) famously had problems, concerned that the film would have an adverse affect on a teenage audience (they’d previously banned the Marlon Brando film The Wild One outright). They made extensive cuts, including removing the entire knife fight, before granting the film an X certificate, restricting its audience to those aged sixteen and over. Rebel Without a Cause wasn’t seen uncut in British cinemas until 1976 when it, along with East of Eden, was reissued with a AA certificate (over-fourteens only) – a double-bill that was a staple of London repertory cinemas for more than a decade. Nowadays it bears a PG certificate.

As with Warners’s release of East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause is released either singly or as part of the three-film Complete James Dean Collection box set. As with the other two films, it’s released as a set of two DVDs, both DVD-9s in NTSC format and encoded for Regions 1, 2, 3 and 4.
This is an upgrade from the previous single-disc edition released in 2000. The earlier version contains a nine-minute featurette, “Rediscovering a Rebel”, which is not in this edition, though just about all the material that makes it up is here.

The transfer appears to be much the same (although my 2000 disc is a PAL one), with the film itself presented anamorphically in the original CinemaScope ratio of 2.55:1. Some allowance has to made for two things: CinemaScope lenses, especially early ones, had less definition than ordinary spherical lenses. Also, Eastman Colour (of which WarnerColor was the studio’s own variant) was inferior to three-strip Technicolor, but was cheaper. Colour film was much less sensitive then than it is now, and needed a lot more light than black and white film did. These were known problems which a director and a DP (in this case, Ernest Haller, who had shot Gone With the Wind) could, and often did, overcome. However, the film has a look that is typical of its time, but looks overlit by today’s standards, and some of the colours (including skin tones) can look overripe. Shadow detail is not great, but then it never was in this film. Blacks are solid, though some grain and edge enhancement can be seen, such as in the final shot.

The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 5.1, which appears to be a port of the original four-track magnetic stereo track that played at showcase venues. It’s a much less adventurous mix than the one on East of Eden, being more or less monophonic apart from the surrounds carrying Leonard Rosenman’s score. There presumably wasn’t a stereo French-dubbed track made, as that track on this DVD is 1.0 mono. I didn’t spot any use of directional sound, nor dialogue coming from left or right. There are thirty-five chapter stops. Subtitles are available for the feature but not the extras.

On the first disc, along with the film, are the trailer and a commentary. The former is in the declamatory style which would likely raise giggles if done today: “Warner Bros again lights the motion picture screens of the world with the dramatic force and fire of…” coupled with the exploding star from the planetarium sequence. You couldn’t really follow that, but they do. The trailer is in 2.55:1 anamorphic and runs 2:22. The commentary is by Douglas L. Rathgeb, author of a book on the making of the film. He’s a lively speaker, and this is a solid and informative commentary, with plenty of interesting information imparted.

On to Disc Two. This follows the pattern of the East of Eden disc, coupling an older documentary with a newly-produced one. The former is James Dean Remembered (66:16, divided into ten chapters), made in 1974. Peter Lawford is our host, and he begins with a chat with fellow Rat Packer Sammy Davis Jr, before embarking on a standard run-through of Dean’s life and career. This documentary is in 4:3, with the film extracts to match.

Douglas L. Rathgeb features in Rebel Without a Cause: Defiant Innocents (36:26). This begins with a discussion of the social unrest – even in affluent families - that inspired Stewart Stern’s script. Stern is also interviewed, and we also hear from Faye Nuell (Natalie Wood’s stand-in) and actors Beverley Long, Frank Mazzola, Corey Allen, Jack Grinnage, Steffi Sidney an, in a brief extract from an archive interview, Dennis Hopper.

Next up are screen tests, in black and white 4:3, featuring Dean, Wood and Mineo larking about. It runs 6:25. The wardrobe tests are also in black and white – from before the production changed to colour. They are in non-anamorphic 2.55:1 and run 5:03.

The deleted scenes are all without soundtracks, in non-anamorphic 2.55:1. They begin with five in black and white then there are eleven in colour. Of particular note is the last one, an alternate ending for the film, betraying the fact that this night scene was actually filmed in daylight as “day for night”. Each scene has to be selected from the menu individually: there’s no “play all” function. This option is available, however, with the three extracts from Warners’ “Behind the Cameras” TV show. (Apart from the trailer, this is the only extra carried over from the old single-disc DVD release.) These extracts begin with our host, actor Gig Young, discussing some aspect of film production – in two of these, it’s how screen stories are found and developed, with a look at some Warners film either in production or awaiting release. In the first segment, he interviews Natalie Wood on location for Rebel. In the second, it’s a moustached Jim Backus in the studio. Finally, he talks to James Dean, in cowboy garb as he’s just come from the set of Giant. By now, Dean’s reputation for fast driving must have been widespread, as Young and Dean refer to George Stevens’s banning Dean from behind the wheel of any car while he was working on Giant. Dean ends with a message to us all – Drive Safely! These three extracts are in black and white 4:3 and run 21:21 in total.

Rebel Without a Cause is the film on which Dean’s reputation stands, and it has since been elevated to the American Film Institute’s Top 100 list. With the fiftieth anniversary of Dean’s death, this – along with East of Eden and Giant - is a showcase release from Warners’ back catalogue and with some minor reservations it’s fair to say they’ve done it right.

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