Here is a fairly exciting, suspenseful and provocative, if also occasionally far-fetched, melodrama of unhappy youth on another delinquency kick. The plot bears no resemblance to the content of a book of the same title published a few years ago. The book was a clinical study of a withdrawn boy. The film presents a boy whose rebellion against a weakling father and a shrewish mother expresses itself in boozing, knife-fighting and other forms of physical combat and testing of his own manhood.
“Rebel Without a Cause” cannot escape comparison with Metro’s recent “Blackboard Jungle.” Each film depicts modern highschool student bodies as ruled by sadistic elements given to switch-blade knives, bullying and generally unpleasant notions of fun. There is in each a suggestion of pitiable waste of human material and promise. Finally “Rebel” may draw upon itself, as did the earlier release, outcries from academic, ecclesiastic and civic bodies.
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The shock impact in “Rebel” is perhaps greater because this is a pleasant middleclass community. The boys and girls attend a modern highschool. They are well fed and dressed and drive their own automobiles. Does the contrast between their healthy-seeming exteriors and their restlessly cruel natures occasionally strain credulity? The debate could go on long into the night with newspaper clippings and police court statistics arrayed on one side and belief in goodness on the other.
Although essentially intent upon action, director Nicholas Ray, who sketched the basic story developed by Stewart Stern and Irving Shulman, does bring out redeeming touches of human warmth. There is as regards the hero, if not as regards the highschool body generally, a better-than-average-for-a-psychological thriller explanation of the core of confusion in the child. And that is paying the typewriter craftsmen a considerate compliment. The police court psychiatrist (Edward Platt) also helps balance things for humanity.
The performance of the star, James Dean, will excite discussion, especially in connection with the irony of his own recent crash death under real-life conditions of recklessness which form a macabre pressagent frame as the picture goes into release. In “East of Eden,” under Elia Kazan’s direction, the 24-year-old actor was widely thought to be doing a Marlon Brando. But freed from Kazan’s evaluations of character, this resemblance vanishes. Almost free of mannerisms under Ray’s pacing, Dean is very effective as a boy groping for adjustment to people. As a “farewell” performance he leaves behind, with this film, genuine artistic regret, for here was a talent which might have touched the heights. His actor’s capacity to get inside the skin of youthful pain, torment and bewilderment is not often encountered.
There are a number of other arresting performances. Jim Backus for one. His mealy-mouthed, wishy-washy, self-deprecating parent is the soft pillow against which the boy beats his fists, demanding manhood, leadership and a father he can respect. There is one powerful scene on a staircase. The boy stands between his mother (Ann Doran), who confronts him from above, and the father who is behind him. Never turning to look at his dad, the youth repeats several times, “Stand up for me, dad. Tell her off.” This bit delineates the whole background of man-and-wife failure which has been the emotional ripsaw in the son’s growing up.
Natalie Wood as the girl next door should add professional prestige. Here, too, there is teenage maladjustment. She, too, asks more of her father than he can give. The father (William Hopper) is seen as embarrassed by the girl’s becoming a woman. Unable himself to relate to his new creature of bosoms, lipstick and sex feelings, he tries to whip away the embraces she wants to go on giving him as she has from babyhood. This time the mother (Rochelle Hudson) is not a shrew but pinhead who understands neither the daughter nor the husband.
Sal Mineo is one of two essentially love-worthy youths to lose their lives in the story. He is the abandoned child of a big Greek tycoon. The boy lives alone in a large villa with only a Negro servant (Marietta Canty) for mother, father and family. Young Mineo stands out on performance and is an important value in the film.
The various highschool “menaces” are briefly and surfacely depicted, often hardly more than a cardboard cutout. Which is not to deny that they serve well as the symbol of hostility against which the suspense develops. They and their gals form the automobile alley of death down which the two feuding youths, Dean and Corey Allen, drive the two old jalopies in a contest to prove who will lose nerve and jump first before the cars go over the bluff. This “Chicken Run” sequence comes early in the picture and results in the death of Dean’s antagonist. It is a punch scene, a novelty, an insight into madcap youth. It also drives home the insanity of frightened youth lest the stigma of being called “chicken” go uncontradicted.
As with the delinquency kick generally, the switch-blade stuff and the unhappiness of kids (typically the fault of their parents in such screen fiction) there are newspaper clippings and other evidence in support of the “Chicken Run” phobia. The sequence is rooted in ghastly reality.
Adults may well come away from “Rebel Without a Cause” as from “Blackboard Jungle” and “The Wild One” and other films which spotlight the compulsive cruelties of youth, with a need to believe the facts hideously exaggerated and a silent prayer that they never meet such youths except upon the motion picture screen.
1955: Nominations: Best Supp. Actor (Sal Mineo), Supp. Actress (Natalie Wood), Motion Picture Story