Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Rebel Without a Cause


I know it’s heresy, I know this was an incredibly influential movie, but, frankly, I thought it was pretty bad. I’ve never been a James Dean fan, I thought he was a haircut in search of a personality. His character here, Jim Stark, is a big crybaby. He don’t get enough love and understanding from his parents for his totally inexplicable angst and alienation, which he mumbles inarticulately about when they ask him to share his agony. Boo-hoo. And he has contempt for his father because of his perception that the old man won’t stand up to his mother. What is Dad’s great sin? Helping out around the house when Mom is sick, apparently. (Jim Backus wears a cute little pinafore in this scene to emphasize his emasculation. Ludicrous.) Sal Mineo is fucked up beyond belief, from shooting puppies (I’m not kidding) to wanting Jim to be his lover and his father, somehow. He lives with his black mammy. I wouldn’t want to be in the same county with him. Natalie Wood is one of those girls who gets her kicks when boys fight over her, or do incredibly stupid things to impress her. Her boyfriend drives off a cliff in a “chickie run,” and a few hours later she’s hooked up with Jim, smiling and laughing. I hated all these people.

It’s very slow, and I didn’t buy into a single scene or idea in it, from the fatherly cop in the first scene to the miraculous arrival of the mammy—okay, she was a maid, but you get the reference—at the Griffith Park Observatory in the last scene, when her dear boy is in trouble. What, she happened to be driving by, miles from anywhere? What is that? Telepathy?

Nobody looks convincing. Yeah, I know, you have to make allowances, people dressed differently in that era … but all these kids are so clean-cut it’s impossible to believe them having a knife fight. Did the girls really wear petticoats to a chickie run? Maybe so, but most of them look too old to be high school students. Natalie Wood was actually 17 at the time, and Sal Mineo was 16, but James Dean was 24. That’s a lot of holding back. Maybe he’d have graduated when he was 37, if he’d lived. Then there was Dennis Hopper, who seemed to have a minor role in everything around this time, and he has almost no lines but looks too old, even though he’s 19.

There was really nothing here for me to like. Oh, I take it back. Lee said she liked the colors, and I had to agree. But I could have seen that in a series of stills. And it occurred to me that, if this had been in black and white, I might have tolerated it more easily. Melodrama plays better in B&W, for some reason, overacting isn’t so glaring. And it was fun to see the observatory 50 years ago, having seen the newly renovated place just the day before … which is the only reason we rented this turkey in the first place.

Trivial grumble: When Plato (Mineo) has gone berserk, shooting at people, and the cops have the observatory surrounded and Jim goes in to get him, Jim persuades Plato to give him the gun, promising to give it right back. He sneakily removes the ammo clip and hands it back. He does this quickly and easily, showing a familiarity with handguns. (It’s something that would have taken me a while to figure out, as I’ve never done it before.) But even gun-ignorant me knows that with an automatic, if you’ve fired it, there’s still a round in the chamber. Okay, it’s a small point, but still.