Nicholas Ray:"Rebel Without a Cause" (1955)

A clenched fist of teenage alienation and cultural disillusion, Rebel Without a Cause questioned the complacent state of 1950s American society with the subtlety of a blow to the jaw. A truly landmark film, Rebel went where almost no Hollywood film had dared, exposing the anger and discontent beneath the prosperity and confidence of post-war America, picking at family values that dictated that happiness was best found in the nuclear family's well-appointed suburban home. The alienated kids in Rebel were part and parcel of these homes -- angry, wounded animals who rejected the very comforts that were supposed to make America superior to the rest of the world. If the notion that comfortable, middle-class white kids could harbor such feelings of anger and nameless yearning wasn't discomforting enough, even more so was the notion that their parents were ill-equipped to understand or help them. From Plato's neglectful mother and father to Jim's ineffectual parents to Judy's pathologically repressed father, all of the film's parents are seen as people whose conformity to the values of 1950s society masks their own discontent and -- in the case of Judy's father and Plato's parents -- underlying deviance. Thus, the teenagers are not so much the problem themselves as heirs to the problems created by the older and supposedly wiser generation.
As the film was defined by the burning performances of its teenage leads, it is sadly ironic that their flames were extinguished before their time, so that Rebel has become as much eulogy as angry declaration. Sal Mineo, sad and touching as the lost boy infatuated with Dean's Jim Stark, was murdered near his Hollywood home, while Natalie Wood, who brought female sexual yearning to the screen in ways that had never before been seen, drowned in a mysterious boating accident. And, of course, Dean, at his most iconic in blue jeans and red jacket, died in a car accident before the film was even released. That Rebel Without a Cause remains a classic is in no small part due to Dean's raw, soulful performance, made more timeless by his mortality. Although the problems of the film's teenagers may seem trifling when compared to those of their modern-day counterparts, Rebel's anger still throbs with conviction, a brooding reminder that, beneath complacency, there is chaos trying to break free.


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