Monday, March 15, 2021

#2,539. Rebel Without a Cause (1955) - The Films of Nicholas Ray


Ever since I was seventeen years old, the age I was when Nick died, people have asked me if I knew James Dean. I’d always do the math in my head. He died in 1955. I was born in 1961. There was a six year difference between his death and my birth. I tried figuring out a way that I could have known him. People seemed to want that from me. Rebel Without a Cause is a ghost tapping my shoulder so I won’t forget who my father was

– Nicca Ray, from her book Ray by Ray: A Daughter’s Take on the Legend of Nicholas Ray.

On September 30, 1955, actor James Dean was driving his new Porsche - which he nicknamed “Little Bastard” - to Salinas, California to enter it in a race. At approximately 5:45 pm, two hours after he was pulled over by the police and ticketed for speeding, Dean collided with another vehicle on U.S. Route 466. Suffering multiple injuries, including a broken neck, Dean was pronounced dead at Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital at 6:20 p.m.

A member of the Actors Studio, Dean’s star shined brightly for a very short period of time. He appeared in a number of televised plays in the early ‘50s before being tapped by Elia Kazan for the role of Cal Trask in 1953’s East of Eden.

Dean would appear in only two more films, both of which were released posthumously: Giant, directed by George Stevens; and the movie that would become his trademark, Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause. Capturing teen angst like few movies ever have, Rebel Without a Cause is one of the seminal films of the 1950's, and considered by many to be one of the greatest motion pictures ever made.

Having just moved to a new neighborhood, troubled teen Jim Stark (Dean), whose relationship with his parents (Jim Backus and Ann Doran) is tentative at best, attempts to make some friends. Unfortunately, he instead draws the ire of local bully Buzz (Corey Allen), who is now bound and determined to make Jim’s life a living hell.

Jim does manage to befriend both Judy (Natalie Wood), Buzz’s equally troubled girlfriend, as well as social outcast Plato (Sal Mineo). But a tragic accident will not only threaten to tear the three apart, but change their lives forever.

Nicholas Ray let his creativity run wild throughout Rebel Without a Cause. A scene with Jim and his parents, set soon after the accident, features spinning cameras and distorted angles, effectively conveying the chaos that rages in young Jim’s mind, and the confusion and anger that has made life unbearable for him.

As Jim's two friends, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo deliver what might be the finest performances of their careers, portraying characters whose home lives are as tumultuous as Jim’s. Judy’s father (William Hopper) all but ignores his daughter, while both of Plato’s parents are out of the picture, leaving him to be raised by the maid (skillfully portrayed by Marietta Canty).

It’s James Dean, though, who makes Rebel Without a Cause an undeniable classic. From his initial appearance on-screen, where he drunkenly cozies up to a toy monkey he found on the street, to the sequence set in the police precinct, when he pours his heart out to Detective Ray Fremick (Edward Platt), Dean is absolutely masterful. It is a performance for the ages, and director Nicholas Ray complements it perfectly, ensuring we the audience are, at all times, tuned in to his main character’s plight; the scene where Jim begs his father to support him against his domineering mother will damn near break your heart.

Rebel Without a Cause premiered less than a month after Dean’s death, and to see how spectacular he is in it is to recognize that Hollywood lost something very special that late September day in 1955.
Rating: 10 out of 10

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