A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Monday, June 6, 2016

Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955)

Rebel Without a Cause seems to me a better movie than either of the other two James Dean made: East of Eden (Elia Kazan, 1955) and Giant (George Stevens, 1956). It's less pretentious than the adaptation of John Steinbeck's attempt to retell the story of Cain and Abel in the Salinas Valley, and less bloated than the blockbuster version of Edna Ferber's novel about Texas. And Ray, a director with many personal hangups of his own, was far more in tune with Dean than either Kazan or Stevens, who were shocked by their star's eccentricities. Granted, Rebel is full of hack psychology and sociology, attributing the problems of Jim Stark (Dean), Judy (Natalie Wood), and John "Plato" Crawford (Sal Mineo) to parental inadequacy: Jim's weak father (Jim Backus) and domineering mother (Ann Doran) and paternal grandmother (Virginia Brissac), Judy's distant father (William Hopper) and mother (Rochelle Hudson), and Plato's absentee parents who have left him in care of the maid (Marietta Canty). In fact, Jim and his friends really are rebels without a cause, there being neither an efficient cause -- one that makes them do stupidly self-destructive things -- nor a final cause -- a clear purpose behind their madness. Fortunately, Ray is not as interested in explaining his characters as he is in bringing them to life. Unlike Kazan or Stevens, Ray gives his actors ample room to explore the parts they're playing. There's a loose, improvisatory quality to the scenes Dean, Wood, and Mineo play together, more suggestive of the French New Wave filmmakers than of Hollywood's tightly controlled directors. It's no surprise that both Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut were admirers of Ray's work. At the same time, though, Rebel is very much a Hollywood product, with vivid color cinematography by Ernest Haller, who had won an Oscar for his work on Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939), and a fine score by Leonard Rosenman. Most of all, though, it has Dean, Wood, and Mineo, performers with an obvious rapport. At one point, for example, Dean puts a cigarette in his mouth backward -- filter on the outside -- and Wood reaches out and turns it around, a bit establishing their intimacy that feels so real that you wonder if it was improvised or developed in performance. (In fact, I noticed the gesture because I had just seen Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend, made ten years earlier, in which Jane Wyman performs the same turning-the-cigarette-around action for Ray Milland several times. Cigarettes are nasty things but they make wonderful props.)