July 9, 2010

Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
Grade: 58/100

Director: Nicholas Ray
Stars: James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo

What it's about. Aimless rebellion among hot, hip teenagers is the subject of this Warner Bros. classic. Sensitive, angst-ridden James Dean is the new teen in high school. Within a day, he gets a best friend (Sal Mineo) and a gorgeous girlfriend (Natalie Wood). And why not, since they all have one thing in common: their fathers have messed up their heads.

Mineo's dad is an absentee baron robber, leaving him to be raised by black maid stereotype Marietta Canty. Wood's dad is a sourpuss who won't let her kiss him (perhaps he has a fear of cold showers). Dean's father is an wuss who allows himself to be nagged continuously by shrewish Ann Doran. He's also Jim Backus, the voice of nearsighted Mr. Magoo and, later, bad TV millionaire icon Thurston Howell III on "Gilligan's Island".

Dean has new pals, but it's not all good, since the tough kids in school have it in for him. His first tormentor is Buzz (Corey Allen), who wants to compete against him in insanely dangerous stunts, such as driving stolen cars off of cliffs. After the odds catch up with Buzz, the rest of the gang still messes with Dean, among them future moviestar Dennis Hopper.

This being a movie, a confrontation is inevitable, and someone is going to get hurt. Besides Buzz, who's already gotten what's coming to him. Perhaps understanding corrections officer (and future "Get Smart" co-star) Edward Platt will see that cooler heads prevail.

How others will see it. Rebel Without a Cause benefitted from one of the greatest film publicity stunts of all time: James Dean's tragic death at a tender age in a car accident. His demise was on September 30, and the movie opened four weeks later on October 27. The timing could hardly have been better for Warner Bros. The movie was a smash, and must have scored with critics as well, since it garnered Academy Award nominations for young leads Mineo and Wood as well as directory Ray.

Today, the movie continues to do remarkably well with its target audience: misunderstood youth. The imdb.com user ratings are 8.7 out of 10 from those under 18. But even older audiences favor the film (7.8 out of 10), partly out of a sense of nostalgia, or sympathy for the ill-fated young stars. Sal Mineo was murdered in 1976, and Natalie Wood, who had a fear of deep water, died in a boating accident in 1981.

How I felt about it. The actions of our troubled teens (we will pretend that Dean was not 24) are highly dramatic but make little sense. You don't agree to a knife fight with a gang leader, you don't agree to go on a "chickee run" with said gang if you don't know what it means, and you don't run out the door waving a gun if the city's entire trigger-happy police force is waiting outside for you.

Most of all, you don't become a teenage delinquent because your father is an apron-wearing milquetoast, or because your father suddenly acts like you carry the plague, or because your father has gone and left you with Mrs. Butterworth. You become a delinquent because your sociopathic tendencies are encouraged by poverty, poor grades, drugs, and bad company.