It’s so sad to think that the three protagonists of this 1955 movie directed by Nicholas Ray all died young: James Dean at 24 years of age in a car accident, the 43-years old Natalie Wood drowned in mysterious circumstances, and Sal Mineo stabbed to death when he was 37 years old for a robbery. But let’s talk about the movie…
In Rebel without a cause, we follow for 24 hours three young “rebels”. James Dean and Natalie Wood constantly clash with their parents, leading the first one to alcoholism-related issues, and the second one to be part of a teen gang involved in illegal activities. Sal Mineo lives without his parents, has violent outbursts, and we understand that he’s unable to live his homosexuality well. It’s interesting to notice how there couldn’t be any explicit reference to that in those years, while in today’s cinema we can explore the problems that the homosexuals had to endure in the post-World War II US society much more openly (for instance, see what Del Toro did in The shape of water).
This movie made history. It seems that it even managed to increase t-shirts’ sales due to the fact that James Dean wore one in the second part of the movie rather than going around in a suit as in the first part. It is the movie that made that actor famous and made him into a symbol. There are so many stories and legends around the making of this movie! For instance, it seems that the 43-years old director Nicholas Ray had an affair with the 16-years old Natalie Wood which led to a conflict with her boyfriend Dennis Hopper, also in the cast. And some say that James Dean, an innovative method actor, essentially directed many of the scenes in which he was involved.
But here’s the question: after 63 years, does it still make sense to watch Rebel without a cause? My answer is yes, it does. You will have to overlook a number of things that nowadays may seem outdated: the 24-years old Dean is not too credible as a 16-years old teenager, the family relationships are a bit obscure since that type of family does not exist anymore, the introduction of the characters and of their interaction is maybe too rushed with respect to what we are used to in present day cinema… but despite all that, it’s still a very powerful movie which takes a snapshot of an important moment in recent history. In Rebel without a cause we witness a generation without the ideals of the previous one which fought against fascism in World War II. It’s a generation which tries to channel its energy towards something unspecified and ends up in teenagers’ conflicts and small-ish illegal activities. The society was changing in those years, and that change resulted in the 60s’ struggles for gender equality, against racism and war, and for free love. The US society changed radically afterwards, and the rest of the Western countries followed suit. Rebel without a cause show us what happened before that, and for that it’s worth watching!
Ah, one thing hasn’t changed a bit in 63 years… the policemen shoot without hesitation!