A delightfully unpretentious and hilarious nostalgia piece from the otherwise tiresome George Lucas, American Graffiti provides the inspiration for such classics as Back to the Future and Superbad (Toad beats McLovin anyday) through sweet characters and priceless dialogue (“Your car’s uglier than I am! That didn’t come out right,” and “You want a knuckle sandwich?” “No thanks, I’m waiting for a Double Chubby Chuck”), foreshadowing subtle cinematic effects such as the Kurosawan wipe that will make many more appearances in Star Wars.
Nicholas Ray’s introduction of star James Dean in the opening scene of Rebel Without A Cause prominently exploited the then-new Cinemascope, with a low, wide-angle view of Dean’s character (Jim) sprawled out drunk on the street. We know before a word has been spoken that Jim is a troubled soul.
As if to confirm the implication that the character, and therefore the film, is likely to be a complex one, Ray’s initial camera shots through the first stages of the film intricately frame characters, depth, light, shadows, and scenery. Many, too many, consider this film a classic for being a testament to Dean’s legend. It is known for nearly perfectly encapsulating the sort of life and nature that made Dean famous, and then killed him. And to be sure, had Brando crashed and burned shortly after, say, A Streetcar Named Desire, the effect would have been identical. As it is, Streetcar is often considered on par with Rebel, though its star not only survived his youth but later become one of the most troublesome and obese annoyances to modern Hollywood; a sort of necessary evil to Francis Ford Coppola.
But Rebel is no more important for its connection to James Dean than The Dark Knight will be important for having starred Heath Ledger. Dark Knight, from all appearances, will be a good film (in part thanks to Ledger’s acting), but were Ledger alive, it would still be good (or not, as the case may be). Rebel Without A Cause is a great film that didn’t have to be great. Ray went out of his way to set up camera shots and avoid plot clichés as only a very competent filmmaker can do. And only a gifted and lucky filmmaker gets his hands on a script like Rebel or Dark Knight, what would otherwise be a mindless popcorn movie that would make money regardless of cinematic quality.
Matching Jim’s red toy monkey in the early scene at the police station, Judy (Natalie Wood) is dressed in red with very red lipstick. Not only does the color connect the two characters immediately (despite not having met yet), but also the Scarlet Letter implication informs us why she is being interrogated. During the interrogation scene (which is really more of a questioning scene), a stark shadow is cast to the right, accentuating Judy’s facial features. The light on the left comes directly from Ray’s desk light. This is a small, but effective means of emphasizing that Judy is being examined, but without the now-obligatory lamp-in-the-face.
Outside of the office, Jim is waiting to be questioned. He offers his jacket to Plato, a boy who appears to be cold. Jim’s gesture ties to the film’s end, when Plato accepts Jim’s coat for keeps. That both scenes feature police officers further connects the film’s beginning and end.
When Jim’s parents appear at the station, the contrast between Jim and his father is sharp, indeed. Jim is unkempt, slouching, and completely carefree. His father is groomed, rigid, and quite insecure. When Jim deliberately switches physical positions with his dad, putting his father high up on the chair where he has been sitting, the contrast between them sharpens and we are shown the first of many attempts by Jim to de-feminize his father.
In the first 15 minutes or so of the film, we are given at least three instances of divided marriages. Judy tells Ray that her parents are not together. Jim overtly states the conflict between his parents and his place between them, yelling at them, “You’re tearing me apart!” Plato’s parents are not together; his father hasn’t been seen for a long time, and his mother is rarely home. The film is founded upon the reality of the separation between parents and their teenage children. The principle of “a strand of two chords is never broken” is on display, as most often the conflict the teenagers experience seems a direct result of both their parents’ unhealthy marriage and poor parenting skills. Plato’s odd desire for Jim is double-faceted: on the surface a sort of homoerotic longing but later a desire for Jim to replace Plato’s missing father. The inside of Plato’s locker has a picture of Alan Ladd, furthering the notion that he’s looking for a father figure. (As for the name “Plato,” the only real similarity I could see between him and his namesake was a propensity for boys, but that’s probably unfair.)
When Ray tells Jim to let out his rage on the office desk, Jim not only hurts his hands punching it, but he is unable to budge, let alone break, the solid wood. This small scene illustrates Jim’s plight. Rebelling without a cause carries no real force. Not only that, but Jim is up against something that can’t be beaten.
Jim’s first real encounter with Buzz resembles to jungle predators eyeing each other as they prowl in a circle. Off in the corner is Plato, watching the action with a disturbingly intent eye on Jim.
The theme of failed fathers is never scene so clearly as when Jim comes home at night to find his father on his knees, cleaning up a tray of dishes he dropped (which he had tried to serve his wife), wearing a flowery apron. In addition, Jim hears the noise of the accident and say, “Mom?” His dad replies, “Hey, Jimbo, you thought I was Mom?” In case we missed it, Ray positions the camera on the other side of the rail bars, creating the impression that Jim’s dad is literally imprisoned. Even as the scene progresses and he tries to be a father to Jim, the apron remains on, bright and feminine, reminding Jim and the viewer that despite his efforts, Jim’s father is completely emasculated. When Jim finally tries to ask his father for advice, it’s reverse-advice: he asks his father what he wouldn’t do, in Jim’s attempt to find out what he should do.
Note, too, the skewed camera angle, denoting the out-of-whack situation.
After the knife fight with Buzz, Jim’s white shirt is stained red. Once home, he takes off his grey jacket and replaces it with the indiscreet fire-engine red leather jacket. For the rest of the film, Jim stands out like Judy did in the film’s first scene. When lying on a red couch, Jim’s parents enter the room and he has a confrontation. Ray positions his actors strategically, with Jim’s mother a few stairs up, then Jim, and finally his father below them seated. As their quarrel continues, Jim and his mother trade places as Jim takes authority over his parents. Unhappy with the setup, Jim physically stands his father up, trying to force his father to take leadership of the family.
Note the perspective change. In the first shot, Jim appears to be lying on both Judy’s and Plato’s laps simultaneously. The second shot lowers and shifts 90 degrees to reveal the deceit.
Judy lights Jim’s fire.
Though Some Like It Hot is often regarded as simply “the greatest American comedy of all-time” (AFI – which should be taken with a gigantic grain of salt) or a Marilyn Monroe sort-of-skin-flick, it turns out that it really is a great film. (If someone else had said so – say, the BFI – then we might not have hesitated at the claim.)
Throughout the film there is a remarkably adept use of deep-focus photography by Billy Wilder and whomever he hired to shoot the film. The first scene perfectly sets the tone, theme, and style of the rest of the film. By having the gangsters pose as pallbearers accompanying the casket of a beloved friend in a hearse, the audience immediately believes in a certain situation that is momentarily to be proved quite false. Once another car emerges from the edge of Wilder’s camera behind the hearse, so also does emerge the hint that we have been momentarily misled. A gunfight ensues, leading the pallbearers to pull machine guns out and begin firing back. In the gunfire, the casket is pierced and liquid pours out. As if to confirm our suspicion – and to assure us that the liquid isn’t anything too grotesque – a gangster opens the casket to reveal booze; lots of booze. Enter the subtitle: “Chicago, 1929”.
The perfectly symmetrical shots from inside the car contain the entire interior of the vehicle and extend our view through the windshield (or back window, as the case may be), giving the viewer a clear field of sight and capturing all of the action relevant to the scene. Initial shock on the viewer’s part is replaced by suspense, which is followed by comedy. All three elements are crucial to the rest of the film, and each element in this scene only hints at the more expanded manifestations in the story to come. Incidentally, this opening scene is also (almost?) completely without dialogue, wonderfully exploiting the potential of camera and mis-en-scene as well as doing homage to silent film, typical of Wilder.
The opening scene also alerts the audience to the theme of “things-are-not-as-they-seem.” Lemmon and Curtis’ romp as a couple of musical dames forms the central predicament of the film. They become the deceivers, taking the place of the gangsters of the opening scene. The deceived become said gangsters, along with the rest of the diegetic world, corresponding to the deceived audience of the opening sequence. The audience, who was gradually let in on the joke of the opening scene, is now in on the joke of the transvestite men from the beginning. In the beginning, then, Wilder explicitly distinguishes the film as it is (comedy) from what it could have been (mystery/suspense). He simply does this by allowing the audience to know the protagonists before they embark on a spree of deception. And granted, the premise is a bit more worthy of comedy than mystery.
Things aren’t as they seem.
Similarly, shortly into the film we see a funeral home which is a front for a bar, where our heroes work as musicians. An undercover federal agent sits casually at a table until the timed bust. The bar’s unknowing patrons even order scotch using the word “coffee,” bringing the film’s deception to a semiotic level. This “it-isn’t-what-it-appears” theme is prevalent throughout the film, as even the supporting and seemingly superfluous details complement the theme as it is in the main plot.
Insofar as the above can be described as “irony,” it is shown us again in the film’s main characters. Joe (Curtis) and Jerry (Lemmon) are introduced to us with two immediately revelations: (1) they play instruments in a band and (2) they are desirous of attractive females, not above letting their eyes wander to the nearest pair of clean-shaven legs. This example and other comments by the secretaries at the musicians’ talent agency foreshadow the coming gender-reversals by reminding the viewers of the obvious: these are two men, and not just men, but men shamelessly and wholeheartedly devoted to the chase of beautiful women.
Before they begin their transformation, Joe and Jerry are mistaken for something they are not: gangsters or feds. In the same scene, the gangsters holding the men hostage brutally murder rival gangsters. The massacre is quite brutal for a film of this sort, apparently serving to remind the viewer that even though this is a comedy, something big is at stake, which just might warrant the sort of actions that Lemmon and Curtis’ characters would otherwise utterly refuse to do.
The first shot of the guys in drag focuses on their legs, connecting them with their opening scene when they admired the legs of a nearby woman. Their fixed gaze on “Sugar Cane’s” (Marilyn Monroe’s) backside (“like jello on springs”) sweetens the irony. When Suger and Joe are in the bathroom talking together, she begins to look straight at the camera as everything about her hypnotizes Joe (and therefore many of the viewers). The short scenes on the train are framed by brief exterior shots of the locomotive, connecting the revved engine with the fast-boiling blood of our main characters.
Shot composition equivocating Monroe with a bouquet; a balancing effect.
Later, Joe steers a boat backwards to comic effect, a detail which again emphasizes the backwardness of the film and its characters. On a final note, one of the funnier lines came from Jack Lemmon after Tony Curtis begins giving what the rest of us know is a pretty good Cary Grant impression: “Nobody talks like that.”