Nicholas Ray, 1955, US, 111 mins
James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Jim Backus, Ann Doran, Corey Allen, Dennis Hopper
This September sees the 50th anniversary of the death of the world's first teenager, James Dean and the commemorations have already begun with the re-issue of the quintessential teen movie, the iconic Rebel Without A Cause .
Arriving along with the birth of rock n roll, teenagers had never before had their existential angst so clearly and painfully depicted on screen. The mythology of the film has only increased in the ensuing years with all three of its stars succumbing to tragic ends. Dean is the immortal teenager, the epitome of 'live fast, die young', after being killed driving his Porsche Spider too fast along the highway. Sal Mineo, who plays the disturbed Plato, was murdered on his doorstep in 1976, while Natalie Wood, Dean's love interest in the movie, died in a mysterious drowning accident in 1981. It's somewhat ironic that the then bit part player Dennis Hopper, one of Hollywood 's real bad boys, is the one cast member still alive and hell-raising and forever being a 'rebel without a cause'.
The film begins with Jim Stark (Dean) being hauled into a police station for 'drunkeness'. Also picked up that night is Judy (Wood), found wandering the streets at 1am, and Plato (Mineo), the most childlike of the trio, who has shot a litter of puppies. The three characters interact only briefly as instead we are introduced to their disfunctional home lives, in a scene which opens up the theme that each of these youngsters - all of whom appear well-brought up, well-meaning people - are trying to negotiate the transition from childhood to adulthood, attempting to seek the security of the family unit yet assert their need for independence.
Jim's parents are a couple who bicker about their wayward son about him rather than to him, his mother (Ann Doran) dominating the father (James Backus) and insisting that each time Jim falls foul of the local community that they simply move neighbourhood, effectually pretending that the events never happened. As a result, Jim has grown more and more isolated, forever the outsider who is never in any place long enough to put down roots or make friends. His outbursts and erratic behaviour is a sublimation of his anger at his ineffectual, apron-wearing father who, he confides in the police sergeant, he doesn't ever want to be like.
Judy, meanwhile, had fled the house following a row with her father over her wearing bright lipstick. "He called me a dirty tramp - my own father". Judy is being forced to come to terms with her imminent womanhood by a father painfully aware, and having to adapt himself to the inevitable event. However, of the three leads, the narrative sidelines the quiet, and most quietly disturbed, Plato. Plato is an isolated loner, childlike and doe-eyed, who is sidelined and ignored by most the people around him. There are no parents to collect him in his hour of need, his mother 'always travelling', only a housekeeper.
The events take place over just 24 hours, with Jim initially promising his parents that he'll stay out of trouble. However, even the best-intended plans go awry. Jim's attempts at befriending Judy, who he recognises both from the police station and as a kindred spirit, are thwarted when she tells him she rides with the kids - the leather-clad Buzz (Corey Allen) and his cronies. He further manages to draw attention to himself by making mooing noises during a trip to the observatory, much to the delight of Plato and the incredulous amusement of Judy, Buzz and co. The narration of the show highlights man's insignificance in the universe, his mortality and his overall irrelevance in the overall scheme of things. It forces the youngsters, who previously have seen themselves as the centre of the universe, to face the realities of the world, adding to their confusing inner turmoil of encroaching adulthood.
Buzz tries to draw Jim into a confrontation, which Jim manages to avoid until the accusation that he is 'chicken'. To close to home, a phrase that he associates with the father that he doesn't want to be like, Jim engages and de-masculates Buzz by disarming him of his drawn flick knife. Disturbed, Jim takes up the challenge of a 'chickie-run' later that evening. This entails the two men driving at full speed towards the edge of the cliff, the first to bail out being 'chicken'.
Much imitated, not least the race at Thunder Road in Grease, the chickie run serves as Jim's tribal initiation as a man. As the two rivals meet, Buzz tells Jim that he likes him. "Why do we do this?" Jim asks him. "We gotta do something" is the reply.
The events of the 'chickie run' are the turning point of the movie. Buzz manages to catch his arm so that he is unable to turn the steering wheel and bail out in time. Jim, fortunately, is able to do so and rises to the challenge of jumping out first, thereby avoiding a similar fate. According to the rules of the game, Jim is the 'chicken' but the test is whether he has been man enough to take stock of the situation and do the brave thing in saving himself instead of pleasing the crowd. Buzz serves as a sacrificial beast, his death allowing Jim, and Judy - his sometime girlfriend, to again face mortality and to re-assess their own lives in an important stepping up to the podium of the grown-up world.
Events conspire to lead Jim, Judy and Plato to a run-down house where a scenario whereby Jim takes on the role of father, Judy the mother, and Plato - who has attached himself to Jim, his new best friend whether he likes it or not - the child. The play-acting that occurs is prophetic for Plato is destined to be the eternal child who will never grow up.
In a touching moment, Judy finds in Jim the father figure who is there for her in her hour of need, but not so Plato - who wakes, as he does everyday, alone. When Buzz' friends - unaware that buzz did, indeed, acknowledge an admiration and camaraderie with Jim - arrive to avenge Buzz, Plato runs amok with his pistol - the one presumably he shot the puppies with - and turns first on the gang, and also on Jim, questioning why he wasn't there for him. Jim, who does feel a paternal impulse towards Plato, has removed the bullets from his gun but, unfortunately, the police who arrive do not realise this and he dies in a hail of gunshots, Jim ineffectually crying out: "I got the bullets".
The death of Plato allows Jim to finally come of age, taking on the role of the father. It is a role that he was forced to accept whether he wished to or not, feeling responsible for a boy who saw him as a father figure. Ultimately, he realises that he does not have all the answers and that he was unable to save the child, and is thus better to understand that a parent is not necessarily the godlike figure one expects them to be but are human and fallible like everyone else in the world. This allows for compassion to enter into his relationship with his parents, who come to collect him, and particularly his father, and so Jim has passed the initiation and entered into manhood a mature human being who understands better his place in the world, and accepting of his insignificance within it.