How Rebel Without a Cause depicted a generation devoid of spiritual lives, coming of age at a time of peace

Srikanth Srinivasan

'At the Movies' is a fortnightly column on Hollywood's Golden Era (1920s-50s) revisiting films of historical, cultural and/or aesthetic significance. Read more from the series here.

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The White Flight phenomenon of the 1950s saw middle-class America withdraw from the cities and settle down in the suburbs. This resulted in television supplanting cinema as the preeminent medium of entertainment. The film industry intended to tackle this by offering unique attractions and introducing more spectacular formats, such as the widescreen CinemaScope. The aim was to lure audiences from the cosiness of suburban houses back to theatres. One of the most prominent examples of CinemaScope, Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause too sought to shake up the tranquillity of suburban life by exploring the disquiet simmering beneath its apparent peace and propriety. The constituent of this disquiet is juvenile resentment and dissent, but unlike The Blackboard Jungle (1955), Rebel Without a Cause tackles the subject entirely from the perspective of the youngsters.

In the first scene, three teenagers are seen detained at the police station at night: Jim (James Dean) for drunkenness, Judy (Natalie Wood) for vagrancy, and Plato (Sal Mineo) for killing puppies. Ray expertly cuts from one character to another to develop of a collective portrait of youth gone astray. As the cops interrogate the trio, we get an idea of the reason underlying their worrisome action. Jim, the protagonist, bemoans a lack of authority in his life. His cuckolded father (Jim Backus), who can't stand up to his nagging wife (Ann Doran), disappoints him with his indecisiveness and timidity. In his fear of inheriting his father's spinelessness, he roughs up anyone who calls him a 'chicken', prompting his parents to move towns to cover up his aggression. At the police station, he gets thrown down by the interrogating officer, who earns Jim's respect for that.

Judy's father doesn't dote on her the way he used to when she was a child. Suddenly expected to behave like a woman, Judy draws the attention of her parents through her transgressive behaviour. Plato lives with a guardian ever since his parents separated and left him alone. Armed with a pistol, he lashes out at anyone abandoning him. The film makes it amply clear that these are not teenagers from difficult economic backgrounds. The youth we see are affluent; most drive around in their own cars and live in large suburban houses. It is, in fact, the materialist and convenient life of post-war America, devoid of a sure moral grounding, that the boys and girls are reacting against.

Rebel Without a Cause is thus an account of a generation coming of age at a time of peace, but also one of empty spiritual lives.

Produced by Warner Brothers, the film traces its lineage partly to psychiatrist Robert Lindner's eponymous book on psychopathy. While its script does offer ample psychoanalysis of its characters, Nicholas Ray isn't interested as much in offering a study of these wayward youngsters as obliging the viewer to share their viewpoint. Criminal behaviour is evoked, but it remains off-screen, registering simply as symptoms of a more fundamental problem. Classical Hollywood's poet laureate of youth, Nicholas Ray immerses us into a world in which adults are only powerless spectators. His focus is on young people living through the final hours of a tumultuous period in their lives. The film unfolds in just over a day, a duration in which the teens break with their parents, make friends, experience death, find love and come of their own.

In one famous scene, the school takes its students to the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles for a show on constellations. The youngsters' rivalries and grudges seem positively petty set against the commentator's remarks on the insignificance of human life on the cosmic scale. On the other hand, the emotions they are living through is a veritable end-of-the-world scenario for them. Jim and his peers are, as it were, "half in love with easeful death", even though they don't wholly understand the concept. They engage in a sensational knife fight outside the observatory in a display of one-upmanship. That night, they continue their battle in the form of a "chickie race", which involves driving stolen cars towards a cliff and jumping off at the last moment. Jim survives, but his rival Buzz (Corey Allen) perishes.

As Jim unsuccessfully explains to his parents that he should turn himself in and walks away to the police station, the other youngsters decide to threaten him against it. This leads to a long night of strife in which all the teenagers of the town are out on the streets, the adults relegated to the margins of this failed society. Running away from the mob, Jim, Judy and Plato end up at a deserted mansion near the observatory. They romance, crack jokes and horse around in the dark €" a behaviour much removed from the death-stricken panic of the hour before. If the film's depiction of the youngsters' amoral power games was a sharp deviation from the clear moral binaries of classical Hollywood, this indifferent response to a fatal incident borders on the scandalous.

In their playacting at the mansion, the trio simulates a nuclear family €" Jim the husband, Judy the wife and Plato the child. And in this improvised roleplay, they come to work through each other's complexes and satisfy one another's needs. The diminutive Plato sees in Jim and Judy parents who will never abandon him like his real parents did. Judy finds a protective figure in Jim, under whose affectionate kisses she can grow up at her own pace. And in standing up for Judy and Plato, Jim walks out of the shadow of his father's cowardliness to find a stable moral compass. None of these roles is real, but it is good enough to take them through their night of sentimental education.

"It's an age where nothing fits," remarks Judy's mother. She's talking about Judy straddling childhood and adult life, but it could well be a comment on Ray's use of the Cinemascope. Shot in a dizzyingly wide aspect ratio of 2.55:1, the film employs the horizontal spread offered by the format in striking ways. In the very first shot, Dean falls down drunk on the road, his body slowly contracting to accommodate itself into the frame. Objects and actors hurtle across the screen at great speed all through the film, and Ray's compositions in deep space, his unusual camera angles and movements, his anti-grammatical editing produces a strong, baroque aesthetic. Ray pays great attention to the teenagers' clothing and footwear, whose primary-colour dominated palette clashes violently with the brown-and-grey outfits of the adults and the sedate, beige wallpapers of the houses.

The single most non-conforming element, however, is the figure of James Dean himself. His very presence in the film, conveys a sense of spontaneous revolt. The memorable image of him in his iconic red jacket, collar upturned and his fists in the pocket, is a picture of coolness as much as of barely contained rage. Dean's is a truly modern performance in the vein of Marlon Brando. His improvised body language, with muffled gestures and a lowered head, and his purposefully inarticulate line reading draw him inward from the screen, cultivating an aura of seductive mystery about him. Dean died in an accident a month before the premiere of this film at the age of 24. His death catapulted his celebrity onto a mythical plane, turning him into an enduring symbol of youth rebellion. Rebel Without a Cause, his most famous film, embodies what its French title describes: a lust for life.

Srikanth Srinivasan is a film critic and translator from Bengaluru. He tweets at @J_A_F_B

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