We’re reappraising a classic, both from a screenwriter’s eye and from modern audiences’ perspectives, as WriteMovies explores the iconic James Dean film REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE in a two-part series of articles. Next time, our Director pins down why its themes stood out so much, but first, our Lost Generation blogger Jake Morgan reviews whether the film that helped define the ‘teenager’ still speaks to today’s youth.
Jake Morgan writes:
I first watched 1955’s REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE a few years ago, as I knew about James Dean’s iconic status as a film star, but hadn’t yet seen any of his three films. Fast forward a few years, and James Dean is one of my favorite actors of all time! REBEL has always stayed with me with me – especially its portrayal of adolescence and the scarily realistic world it creates. I wanted to revisit this golden-age classic and ask whether it still holds up for a modern young audience, even across the decades of change that have followed it!
I was a little worried it would appear melodramatic to me, like many golden age films. But I’m thrilled to say it didn’t. James Dean portrays Jim as a physically powerful character yet gives him a sense of vulnerability, through revealing Jim’s inner conflicts – ones that modern young audiences could totally identify with among the modern pressures of life.
The film opens with Jim (James Dean) passed out drunk on the street, when he escorted to the police station. Here we meet the two key supporting characters. Judy (played by Natalie Wood) is brought in for violating curfew, and confesses to the police she is frustrated that her Dad no longer sees her as his ‘little girl’. It’s a clear sign that the older generation is estranged from the new “teenager” state of these youths – the in-between of childhood and adulthood – a turbulent age that was only now coming into focus. We also meet Plato, a boy abandoned by his parents, being brought into the station because he killed a litter of puppies, who is now looked after by a housemaid.
Jim reveals about his struggles with his parents, who have repeatedly moved house in order to get Jim out of trouble, but he’s frustrated at their complete lack of connection with him, when all his character wants is warmth, to be loved and have a good relationship with someone. (Don’t we all, my fellow Lost Gens!) This puts Jim in a fit of rage when confessing to the detective – who offers an open door to help Jim him settle in to Los Angeles – a rare moment of empathy from the older generation to the unhappy youth shown in the film.
During the 1950s, younger people were growing up in an economic boom, but with a growing disillusionment with the older generation. Young people today can totally relate to this disillusionment – and hey, it’s been even tougher for them in today’s turbulent and locked-down era. Not many of us get to own fast cars at a young age like Jim and his rivals!
The film then takes Jim, on his first day of school, on a field trip to the famous Griffith Observatory. Here a tense a knife fight scene ups the stakes, with a group of punks who reject Jim’s “funny guy” antics. The scene remains as violent and as raw today – director Nicholas Ray achieves this using long takes and a lack of sound, for heightened realism. After the fight, the punks pressure Jim into joining a lethal test of bravery in fast cars called “Chickie-run”.
This becomes one of the most tense and sad moments of the film. The “Chickie-run” might be an unknown activity to a modern audience, but it’s a shocking scene that suddenly changes the tone of the movie. Despite the entire scenario being unfamiliar to modern audiences, it is made compelling because of the relatability of the main characters. Go Jim!
After the “Chickie run” sequence, Jim, Plato and Judy bond and drive home together, clearly traumatized by the shocking event that resulted from it – and Judy falls for Jim.
Jim, Judy, and Plato become a kind of family for each other. Hiding from the punks in an abandoned mansion, they spend a happy time together in an abandoned mansion. This sequence shows us what they’ve been yearning for from their parents and the older generation, who have so little handle on what they truly need.
REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE succeeds as a drama and stands the test of time, particularly in its moving portrayal of the relationship between Jim and Judy. In my view, today’ age of straight to streaming romance films doesn’t capture teen love at all – it usually falls between ‘cringe’ melodrama and dialogue to make you choke on your popcorn. But REBEL explores this relationship and uses it to present the disconnection that a modern young audience will still experience. The adolescent love that the characters in the film have, stems from the disconnect with their parents’ generation and emotional distance.
Overall, despite the unfamiliarity of its world to modern audiences, ‘Rebel Without A Cause’ captures adolescence and the sense of isolation from the normal world that my generation can relate to (like, a million percent!!).
Some argue that James Dean is the first person to play a teenager on screen, and that this film was a vital step towards today’s great teen dramas and TV shows. It’s also a great introduction to why James Dean became – and remains – such an icon. This groundbreaking film also took a tragic turn in the real world: Dean and his co-stars Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo all suffered tragic endings to their lives. This movie is frequently referenced in other modern films and TV shows – LA LA LAND and RIVERDALE for example – and I think it can still totally connect modern teens to Hollywood’s ‘golden age’.
Next time, see a script analyst’s view of what made this such a vital movie, from our Director Ian Kennedy.