A review I wrote for my film class. For a good summary of the film, go to http://filmsite.org/rebel.html.
In 1955, “Rebel Without a Cause” was unleashed on the American public. The last decade’s baby boom was entering its teens, and America faced a seemingly unprecedented explosion of teenage rebellion. With the advent of television and rock and roll around the same time, parents thought that they were living during a wholly singular moment in history, and the latent power of teen defiance would soon boil over. Answers were sought to this “new trend” (really just a quality of adolescence as old as time itself) and the promotional material for “Rebel Without a Cause” exploited this phenomenon, billing the movie as a “challenging drama of today’s teenage violence!” and describing the main character as “Jim Stark—a kid from a good family-what makes him tick…like a bomb?” The advertisements looked to capitalize on the fear building in adults toward their teenagers. Adults going to see “Rebel Without a Cause” expected to find out why adolescents behaved so differently than they remember themselves doing, but instead found that the primary cause of teenage tragedy was parental failure. Director Nicholas Ray used many different devices, like the classical tragedy format and the sympathetic portrayal of the victimized hero, to show that the day’s “teenage violence” was a perpetual and unchanging dilemma.
The three main characters of “Rebel Without a Cause” all struggle to transform from children to adults. Jim Stark is a tragically misunderstood character fighting to gain awareness of the world. In the beginning, mature and childish images are juxtaposed in Jim’s character to show his confusion over his place in the world, like in the opening sequence, where a drunk and maturely dressed Jim lies down next to toy monkey and comforts it. The key change in Jim’s character comes in the abandoned mansion when Judy professes his love for him. Awakened by a true love that his parents never provided, Jim is saved from violence and pursues a peaceful outcome. Plato is a perpetual outcast who foreshadows his own demise early in the police station, saying, “No one can help me.”
All three have been failed in some way by their parents. Lack of understanding is a key factor in each of the three’s relationship with their parents. Each side sees the other as illogical and unable to communicate. Incapable to see their growing transformation, the parents subjugate their offspring by insisting on treating them like children and refusing them respect as the adults they are quickly becoming. For instance, even though Judy’s dad admonishes her for what he sees as ‘childish’ behavior, he still talks down to her as if she were a small child incapable of reason.
The teenagers are growing but are still innocent; meaning both that they have much to learn about the world and that the tragedy that transpires does not result from their own wrongdoing. Adhering to the conventions of tragedy, the events of the plot seem inevitable due to critical failings on the part of a variety of characters. Being a modern Hollywood tragedy, the plot avoids the bloodbath common in classical tragedy, having all but one of the characters survive the catastrophe to hopefully understand each other and become better people. The five acts of the plot neatly divide the characters’ transition from childhood to adulthood. Like other initiations, they must past several tests to ‘graduate’ to adulthood. The climax in the fifth act of the death of Plato finally cuts Jim and Judy off from childhood. By being stylized after a classical tragedy, “Rebel Without a Cause” transcends other teen problem films of its era, adding legitimacy to the true misunderstandings that adolescents suffer. Teenage strife is a universal tragedy, regardless of the time period.
My favorite sequence is the ‘chickie race’ scene that makes up the third act. The sheer power and drama of that scene greatly aided my understanding of this film. Even though the effects are dated, and even though a modern film could create a much more real-looking car race, the scene grips the viewer and forces them to see the tragedy for themselves. Also, the effect of Jim jumping out of the car is jerky but still completely unforgettable.
At several key points in the film, the director uses a sudden skewed camera angle ("Chinese Angle") to emphasize certain points. For instance, the 180-degree rotation from Jim’s perspective in the living room represents the vastly different point of view that Jim has compared to his parents. Also, the camera follows Plato’s head after getting shot by quickly rotating to the right, like a damaged ship listing to the side. Skewed camera angles create a similar effect as in “Do the Right Thing,” making the audience uncomfortable. The film’s costumes are also used to express characterizations. When Jim’s family first appears, they are wearing stiff, formal dinner clothes, symbolizing their aloofness from their son. The teenagers all wear clothing that expresses their desire to appear older. Jackets are a key motif throughout the movie, as well, representing the comfort and parental love that can be given from one person to another.
“Rebel Without a Cause” does not offer any quick solutions or easy targets of blame in tragedy. The film’s title suggests a more universal perspective. Any teenager from any point in history can watch this movie and understand Jim’s motivations. Possessing the raw energy of childhood but not the focus of maturity, teenagers feel like a highly charged but misdirected force of nature. Teenagers are built to fight, but most times have nothing worthwhile to direct their anger towards. So here is the forlorn adolescent, possessing an inner urgency to rebel but without a cause for fighting. The responsibility for the tragedy belongs to the parents, who, as former teenagers, have become out of touch with their children who act on the same motivations they once had. In a way, “Rebel Without a Cause” is a challenge to those adults who came to the theater to find an easy solution to teenage violence, forcing them to resolve their own quickness to look for guilt somewhere other than themselves.