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.