#98 – Rebel Without a Cause
Year released: 1955
IMDb rating: 7.7
Summary: A rebellious young man with a troubled past comes to a new town, finding friends and enemies.
Previously seen?: No
First thoughts: I have heard of this movie, but I also know absolutely nothing about it. This will be my first-time seeing James Dean on screen and I’m curious if he’ll be wearing the iconic leather jacket and white t-shirt that he has been memorialized in over the years. Will his acting blow me out of the water?
My Post-Movie Thoughts
Wow, this did not age well. It’s hard to imagine a world and an audience that would embrace this movie as a work of art. The script had more than enough cringe and even James Dean and Natalie Wood couldn’t save it from feeling hyperbolic and dramatic. “You’re tearing me apart!”
It starts with Jim (Dean) a troubled teen new in town and currently in police custody for being drunk in public. Also at the station are Judy (Wood) and John “Plato” (Sal Mineo) for being out past curfew and killing a bunch of puppies, respectively.
Turns out Dean is drunk and frustrated because his home life is more than he can handle. His mom is a strict mother and wife, and Jim is frustrated that his father won’t stand up to her. “If he had the guts to knock mom cold once, then maybe she’d be happy and then she’d stop picking on him.” That is, if only my dad would assault my mom, we could finally be a happy family. Unfortunately, that is only the beginning of the toxic masculinity that runs rampant throughout the movie.
Jim takes an immediate liking to Judy (the feelings are not reciprocated, at first) and is pleased to discover that they are classmates at his first day of school the next day. Judy is too preoccupied with her bully of a boyfriend Buzz, who wastes no time in tormenting Jim. Jim and Buzz take part in a knife fight (think Michael Jackson’s Bad music video), and when Jim is victorious, Buzz insists they play chicken that night.
Jim wants to talk this over with his father first, and goes home to discover that is father as dropped a platter of dishes on the ground, and is in the process of cleaning up his mess. The horror! Jim is so disappointed that his father would actually bother to clean in any fashion, he begs him to stop. “Don’t… you shouldn’t.” Of course Jim’s dad is wearing his wife’s apron in this scene, to really lay the humiliation on thick. We are meant to sympathize with Jim’s embarrassment. But 65 years after the film was released, I sympathized with the father being scolded by his son for helping around the house.
I’ve always thought chicken is when two cars drive head-on toward each other, and the first car to swerve out of the way is the chicken. But in Rebel, they’ve escalated the recklessness and are racing toward a cliff. Jim rolls out of his car safely, but Buzz’s jacket gets stuck on his car door and he plunges to his death. Lisa is seemingly devastated, and Jim uses this opportunity to console her shoot his shot and let her know that she should be tired, because she’s been running through his mind aallll day (definitely was not the dialogue, but I think this version is better).
Following this tragedy, Jim and Lisa continue to feel unloved and ignored by their parents, and run into each other outside of their neighboring houses. Jim openly flirts with the distressed Lisa, and just like that, she’s all “Buzz who?” and switches over to team Jim. (OK, Buzz wasn’t great, but can we at least bury him first before she declares her love for a new bae?)
Buzz’s friends aren’t happy with Jim and Plato.
I’ve ignored Plato thus far in my summary, so to catch you up, he’s a future serial killer (just my assessment) who is on record for killing an entire litter of puppies, and is totally ignored by his parents, left to be raised completely by his maid (the only black person cast in the movie, Marietta Canty). He was at the Chicken Run and witnessed Buzz’s death by leather jacket cuff.
The trio; Jim, Plato, and Lisa; escape to an abandoned mansion where it becomes clear Plato wants to be a bit more than Jim’s friend, and Lisa is head over heels for Jim (well at least as head over heels as someone can become in 30 minutes or so). It all hits the fan when Buzz’s friends track them down, Plato starts shooting people with his concealed pistol and he ends up getting killed by police after a short standoff.
The movie is wrapped up by Jim’s dad promising him that he will be a better man for him, which I assume means that next time he drops his shit all over the floor, he’ll step over it alà Allen Iverson stepping over Tyronn Lue in the playoffs while declaring “This is meant for a woman to clean up! What would my boy do if he saw me picking up this mess?”
Final thoughts: I’ll say it again: This did not age well. Between the excessively outdated gender roles and overdramatic teen romance, I could not get into this picture. As for James Dean, he definitely had the squint and smolder look down, and his acting was fine (his red jacket was LIT), it’s just the lines were… a bit much. I discovered after that James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo were all nominated for Academy Awards for their work, and ok, sure. I don’t know what else was released that year, but maybe things were slow. And it was 1955, so we can be certain that diversity was nonexistent. (We may not be as far removed from that as we think).
Overall, it was a no for me dog, and I would not watch it again.
Up Next: The Third Man