The cinema of Nicholas Ray, even in early efforts like They Live by Night (1948), In a Lonely Place (1950), Flying Leathernecks (1951), and The Lusty Men (1952), ranges across conventional Hollywood genres but almost always reveals recurrent, guiding concerns. Among these are the relations between individuals and cruel, unforgiving environments or authority – in particular, the marginal status of adolescents; the nature of masculinity; and violence as a defining attribute of social relations. To express and reinforce this thematic coherence, and corresponding to the emotional turbulence of characters and actions on the screen, his films also display a visual flair and recognisable style marked by restless camera movement and quick editing generally uncharacteristic of the widescreen formats favoured by the director.
During a three-year stretch, from 1954 to 1956, Ray made six films that further demonstrate how these concerns can be expressed through distinctive and often self-conscious revisions of Hollywood genres and conventions. Johnny Guitar (1954) is a singular Western that features female antagonists vying for such generic objectives as property, law and order, and home and settlement, while Bigger than Life (1956) showed the descent into megalomania of a small-town teacher and father who nevertheless fails in his grander schemes, like sacrificing his own son, to escape his suburban life. Rebel Without a Cause follows the attempts of an adolescent, Jim Stark (James Dean), to belong at a new high school, make friends, and relate to his parents. That these productions were each made for different Hollywood studios was both an indication of Ray’s standing as an individual filmmaker and of the deteriorating control of the studio system over film production.
Crucially, as a 1950s melodrama, Rebel Without a Cause calls attention to the instability of conventional gender and social relations. Its critique of society is biting because it targets exactly those institutions of mass social or bourgeois life – family, home, school – meant to be uplifting, stable, and safe but that can turn out to be alienating and victimising. When melodramas address the institutions of home or family they engage, sometimes critically, Hollywood’s own tendency to underplay social conflict by moving towards conditions of resolution and ultimate stability. A result, as in the works of Douglas Sirk, like Magnificent Obsession (1954), All that Heaven Allows (1955), and Written on the Wind (1956), is the critique of romantic relations and standards of masculinity as well as the artificiality of filmmaking conventions that portray them. Rebel Without a Cause takes the provocation further by exploring the problems not of adults but of youth. The resulting, interwoven conflicts in the film occur on multiple levels, between Jim and other youths, his parents, and the police.
A handful of earlier films had examined (for some, exploited) juvenile delinquency but these productions, such as Youth Runs Wild (Mark Robson, 1944) and I Accuse My Parents (Sam Newfield, 1945), had been low budget efforts of smaller studios. Rebel Without a Cause was a major studio production that brought together a social critique of teenage life with self-conscious attention to the role of popular cinema in portraying contemporary society. In other words, implicated in the film’s questioning of social and domestic order is the cinematic order by which Hollywood had institutionalised itself as the nation’s predominant storytelling and image-making apparatus. Rebel Without a Cause suggests contradictions and conflicts at the heart of the familial relations that constituted contemporary society but also the very means by which society’s leading cultural institution had organised and legitimised certain experiences. Emasculated by Jim’s mother, Mr. Stark (Jim Backus) is thus unable to provide authoritative advice to Jim when his son needs to decide whether to turn himself in for participating in the deadly “chickie run” with other teens. Father here does not know best.
Jim’s response to his father’s indecisiveness is an anguished physical assault and raw emotional outcry. Dean’s galvanising use of “method” acting broke through conventions of Hollywood performance to reveal what many perceived as the “authentic” pain and alienation felt by teenagers. With Dean’s performance, Rebel Without a Cause raises the far-reaching postwar question of how filmmakers concerned with the place of teenagers, the gendered roles of males, and the stability of the institution of the family could accommodate changes in social standards of behaviour. Hollywood cinema was a cultural form that powerfully communicated patterns of behaviour marked as “normal” or “deviant”; indeed, popular narratives often turned on the opposition between prevailing standards and individual actions and featured eventual conversions and reconciliations or final separations. “Rebellion”, in this way, functioned dramatically to foreground social expectations and individuals’ relations to them.
Writing on the relations between the rebel and society in Ray’s films, Thomas Elsaesser puts it well:
Either they [Ray’s rebels] attempt to escape from society altogether and retreat into a world of tranquility – in which they themselves are doomed, and their actions become suicidal. Or their revolt itself is an attempt to revalidate “degraded” ideals, of the social system itself, and then their reconciliation is bought at an exorbitant price…. These rebels try to live the explicit dreams of their society, while their very natures – or their alter ego – constantly belie any possibility of permanent reconciliation. (1)
The climactic illustration of this process in Rebel Without a Cause is haunting: following the attempt by Jim, Judy (Natalie Wood), and Plato (Sal Mineo) to create a “family” and retreat to an abandoned mansion, the trio is first driven out by other teens and then Plato is shot dead at the planetarium by the police. Jim, in the film’s much-debated closing moment, is reconciled with his father, who pledges to stand firmly by his son’s side; whether such reconciliation is permanent and whether it suggests that all of Jim’s previous rebellion has been recouped by the traditional family structure are left as open questions. Teenagers, for decades a group of special concern to filmmakers for their vulnerability to inappropriate, immoral, or anti-social ideas, fit readily into broader sociological and popular cultural concerns about deviant behavior, its causes and remedies.
The struggle was not only about the cultural resonance or social meaning of the narratives and images of youth presented on-screen. During the 1950s, the emergence of teenage audiences or market segments, and of teenage subculture, was both symptomatic of, and contributed to, sweeping changes taking place in Hollywood and US society. Tom Doherty has noted that the challenge for Hollywood was not only to produce stories about teenagers but also to shift their operations so that their productions were more explicitly created for teenage markets increasingly understood as active and profitable (2). Films like The Wild One (Laslo Benedek, 1954), Blackboard Jungle (Richard Brooks, 1955), and Rock Around the Clock (Fred Sears, 1956) not only featured stories of teenagers: they also challenged the conventional understanding that movies were to be viewed by the family – by Dad, Mom and children together. By emphasising the discrete social, emotional, and marketplace experiences of teenagers, Hollywood’s cultivation of the teen market epitomised the changes occurring in society and in Hollywood itself, which was confronting the need both to modify the stories it was creating and to re-situate itself as a cultural institution.
If Ray had already trafficked for a decade in films about marginalised characters, hostile environments, and troubled social relations, he found in Dean his consummate on-screen surrogate, embodying the rebellious adolescent outsider. Dying tragically in late 1955 transformed the actor’s persona into popular cultural legend – quite literally as the teen rebel who, with his image preserved on celluloid, would never grow old or become entirely co-opted by adult society. François Truffaut commented at the time, “In James Dean, today’s youth discovers itself [through the] eternal adolescent love of tests and trials, intoxication, pride and regret at feeling ‘outside’ society, refusal and desire to become integrated and, finally, acceptance – or refusal – of the world as it is” (3). To extend Truffaut’s remarks, it might be said that through youth the shifting postwar consumer society of the 1950s discovered itself. Dean’s performance in Rebel Without a Cause foregrounds both specific social issues at play in contemporary debates about post-war delinquents and domestic instability and the abstract reckoning of rebellion and estranged individuals, notably adolescents, in modern society.
In the 50 years since it first appeared, the film has continued to serve as a touchstone for imagining anxieties over coming-of-age rituals, traditional values of family and community, the provocations of mass or consumer society, and even threats from abroad. The specific sources of individual and social insecurity have changed, the specific motivations for rebellion have shifted, and the role of cinema and its heroes in the United States and other societies have been forever altered. What has persisted is Rebel Without a Cause’s power to represent individual rebellion and the possibilities of social reconciliation, an affirmation of the cinema’s capacity to illuminate such realities and, through bold performance and bravura filmmaking, to serve as a bellwether of cultural change.
- Thomas Elsaesser, “Nicholas Ray (Part 1)”, Brighton Film Review no. 19, April 1970, p. 15
- Thomas Doherty, Teenagers and Teenpics: The Juvenilization of American Movies in the 1950s, rev. ed., Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 2002, pp. 48-53.
- François Truffaut, “Feu de James Dean”, Arts September 1956; quoted in Graham McCann, Rebel Males: Clift, Brando and Dean, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, 1991, p. 141.
Rebel Without a Cause (1955 USA 111 mins)
Prod Co: Warner Bros. Prod: David Weisbart Dir: Nicholas Ray Scr: Stewart Stern Phot: Ernest Haller Ed: William Zeigler Art Dir: Malcolm Bert Mus: Leonard Rosenman
Cast: James Dean, Nathalie Wood, Corey Allen, Sal Mineo, Dennis Hopper, Jim Backus, Ann Doran, Edward Platt