So this is a perfectly good movie full of great ideas and solid performances that for some reason or other I simply did not enoy—and a part of that disinterest is almost certainly to do with the movie’s cult status, and the fact that I came at it with possibly-unreasonable expectations, and also–to really immolate my credentials as a critic–a good part of it might also have to do with the fact that the movie’s peopled mostly with gorgeous teenagers or early twentysomethings and I happen to be feeling, on the cusp of 30, a lowkey resentment of all things young and beautiful. But. The movie is good. If I had seen it in theaters without any word of its brilliance and iconography I would surely have told friends afterward that it made for a good (if heavyhanded) time at the movies.
The ending, in particular, is so eager to communicate a morality message, it seemed like something out of the 1930s. CRIME DOESN’T PAY scrawled in big letters across the poster.
But yeah no: I, like every modern viewer coming at this for the first time, was watching Rebel Without a Cause with a focus on James Dean, its beautiful, “rebellious,” and surprisingly tender young hero—who, contrary to the poster’s suggestion, rebels against convention only in an effort to fit in with the cool kids and to maybe hopefully attract the attention of the beautiful young Judy (Natalie Wood).
I went into this thinking Dean would be strutting across the screen with his thumbs in his belt, tossing threats at cashiers and kissing women who didn’t agree to be kissed.
Not the case.
He’s a sweet and sympathetic kid who’s made to seem that way from the first time we see him, face-down on the sidewalk, drunk and trying to talk with cops who’ve come and picked him up off the ground. Maybe your very first impression is to look at him like a souse, a young Don Birnam, but it’s clear before long that this isn’t quite who he is. That he isn’t really even getting drunk in pursuit of any kinda hedonistic thrill. There’s something Peter Pan-like about it. Like this guy would get wasted and then gladly spend his evening trying to catch butterflies.
(Full disclosure: I’m also writing this after seeing his performance in moviepicutre n.304, Giant, where, to be honest, Dean provides a smaller but infinitely stronger and more nuanced performance on which his reputation ought to rest. So if you’re curious about the mythos, and you’re just interested to see it substantiated—go to that picture. You’ll get Liz Taylor and Rock Hudson along with him, and a clearer idea of just how monumental a talent was lost when he died.)
Dean here plays Jim, a disillusioned kid with well-to-do parents, a nice safe home…but he’s feeling some kinda malaise. A post-war malaise of suburban comfort. Searching and dissatisfied. The sorta thing that Gore Vidal said was only ever acknowledged (was perhaps invented) after WWII.
Until the rise of American advertising, it never occurred to anyone anywhere in the world that the teenager was a captive in a hostile world of adults.Gore Vidal
And so Jim acts out.
He’s as shy and introspective as a flat-tempered good kid, but the “causelessnes” of his rebellion, such as it’s described by the poster, has less to do with a Brando-esque curb-stomp of cultural norms than with a simple feeling of…displacement. He’s a postwar teenager. His angst is a more fleshed-out version of what we were seeing with Geraldine Brooks in The Reckless Moment when she tells her mom that kids these days are savvier than ever to the senseless cruelties of life. There’s a bit of that same tormented-youth thing in Gun Crazy as well, where it’s punished in a distinctly unglamorous way. With Gun Crazy, Hollywood is telling teenagers that their wily reckless ways are early steps on The Path to Ruin. That movie is almost Biblical in its scorn. Rebel Without a Cause, on the other hand, feels like an early hint toward the now-commonplace cinema of teenage angst that says, “Your wily reckless behavior is not The Way…but it’s kinda sexy, isn’t it?”
So yeah, I feel kinda lame to be saying that I wasn’t all that moved by this, but I wasn’t, and maybe somewhere down the line I’ll be compelled to give it another look, to appreciate the candy-varied color scheme and the charmingly innocent that flourishes at the bottom of a drained pool in the back of an abandoned house, the strangely parental roles that Dean and Wood assume over their friend Plato (Sal Mineo). The whole thing just feels kinda weird. I don’t even think it would’ve rang my bell if I’d seen it when I was fourteen or fifteen, at the very peak of my adolescent angst. This might actually be the foremost movie where the poster, the legacy, might have ruined it for me. I was expecting Dean to be a paragon of rebellion and Devil-be-damnedness. He’s not. He’s a very innocent kid.
Whatever. I’m glad to’ve seen it, but it’s not for me.