James Dean’s signature film role arrives on 4K/Blu-Ray and not a moment too soon
In his brief, brilliant life, James Dean starred in only three films. Only one, East of Eden, received a theatrical release before he died at the age of 24 in an automobile accident. Of the other two films, Rebel Without a Cause and Giant, the former arrived in theaters just a month after his death, the latter a year later. Dean received two posthumous Academy Awards nominations in subsequent years (he won neither), but that did little to hamper his ascension into iconic status, an instinctive, preternaturally talented actor gone far too soon, leaving behind a string of “What ifs?” across the following decades.
Pop culture fame, however, makes its difficult, if not impossible, to evaluate any one of his three roles with anything approaching objectivity. From the vantage point of 2023, Dean’s tortured performances might seem histrionic, theatrical even, but at the time, Dean, along with Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift before him, represented a new, exciting performance style, Method acting, an inside-out approach intended to convey a level of psychological realism and social insight previously thought unattainable. Method acting was taught in standalone, unaffiliated acting schools, not studio backlots where contract players learned the rudiments of movie acting along with a handful of physical skills (e.g., fencing, horse-riding, etc.) that might prove useful working in multiple genres for major studios.
In Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause, Dean plays a bitter, disillusioned, middle-class high-schooler, Jim Stark. While Dean was arguably six years too old to play a high schooler, he erases any doubts about his age within the film’s first few moments. Clad in blue jeans, white t-shirt, and a red cotton jacket with an upturned collar, Dean’s Stark effortlessly embodies ‘50s-era outsider cool. Dean’s Stark is also prone to wild, uncontrollable mood swings, his explosive anger aimed in the general direction of his weak-willed, indecisive father Frank (Jim Backus) and a stubborn, controlling mother, Carol (Ann Doran). There’s more than a slight Oedipal angle to Jim’s pained relationship with his parents. Like much else in Rebel Without a Cause, subtext remains subtext, there to tease viewers with hidden depths and unacknowledged complexities.
A contemporary diagnosis would probably involve medication and therapy, but Jim prefers to express himself frequently and forcefully, picking fights with his father and all but ignoring his mother. Finding home life unbearable, Jim seeks validation elsewhere. As a relatively new high school student, though, Jim doesn’t have a circle or base of friends, adding to his sense of loneliness and isolation. It’s not until he meets and falls for Judy (Natalie Wood), a girl from the right side of the tracks, but like Jim, in conflict with herself and her father over his lack of affection (a Eureka complex by another name), that he begins to care about anyone outside his family. Jim also befriends John “Plato” Crawford (Sal Mineo), a desperately sad, lonely teen abandoned by his mother to the care of his housekeeper.
The makeshift family Jim, Judy, and Plato doesn’t last, of course. Besides their disapproving parents, Jim and Judy, not quite Romeo and Juliet, face pressure from Judy’s sometime boyfriend, Buzz Gunderson (Corey Allen), and his gang of teenage roughnecks. Toxic masculine “games” involving knives and cars inevitably lead to more than one death, along with the usual supply of guilt, penance of sorts, and reconciliation. Like most films of the era, those final moments are meant to reestablish the status quo ante and while they do, they feel temporary, bound to last a month, a week, or even a day.
Almost seventy years later, Rebel Without a Cause’s exploration of white, suburban, middle-class teens and their various psychoses and neuroses might feel more than a bit outdated, even slightly self- and over-indulgent. Thanks, however, to Dean, Wood, and Mineo’s perpetually watchable performances and Ray’s impressive use of the widescreen Cinemascope format, filling every frame with symbolic and narrative meaning, its status as a classic of mid-century American filmmaking remains deserved.
4K/Blu-Ray Special Features
Commentary by Douglas L. Rathgeb, author of The Making of Rebel Without a Cause
Documentaries Rebel Without a Cause: Defiant Innocents and James Dean Remembered
Dennis Hopper: Memories From the Warner Lot
Additional Scenes (Without Sound)