The Films of James Dean: Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

Note: This week on TMP we’re looking at James Dean’s major roles with reviews from The Complete James Dean Collection box set. Yesterday: East of Eden. Today: Rebel Without a Cause.

Teen delinquency films from the ’50s seem like they’re about a dime a dozen, but Rebel Without a Cause is the only one I can think of that is widely regarded as a true classic. In true delinquent fashion, the film opens with James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo in the juvenile department of the police station.

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(Image via Best Teenagers Ever)

Jim Stark (Dean) was found drunk on a sidewalk. Judy (Wood) was found wandering through town in the middle of the night. John “Plato” Crawford (Mineo) is in for animal cruelty. Ray Framek (Edward Platt), counselor of the police department’s juvenile division, interviews each of the three teens to discover the cause of their behavior, but he isn’t able to save them from their troubles.

Nicholas Ray directed Rebel Without a Cause, a story of generational conflicts and the problems faced by the youth of suburban America.

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(Image via Fanpop)

Rebel Without a Cause is at times an incredibly tense film. Confrontations, feuds, knife fights… there’s a whole lot of drama in suburban L.A.!

It offers a grim take on the life of the American teen, and the future. Jim’s parents, for example, encourage him to act in his own interest rather than telling the truth. What kind of man will he grow up to be, with this taught to him as a guiding principle in his formative teen years?

Rebel Without a Cause captures the youthful discontentment of the modern day, and the issues of surface-perfect lives, where one may have a home, a family, and wealth, but does not have true happiness.

All of the delinquency issues seen in the film’s young characters stem from problems at home: parents creating a toxic home environment by staying in an unhappy marriage; an uncaring and judgmental father, criticizing his daughter’s every move; an absentee single mother, abandoning her son on his birthday and leaving him in the care of a housekeeper.

Watching Rebel Without a Cause always reminds me just what I love the most about James Dean’s performances. He seems to have so much going on in his head — not like you can see the wheels turning as he attempts to portray varied emotions and perform well, but like there’s much more to him than his broody and moody front. Jim is such a great example of this quality in Dean. He’s a troubled young man, but the viewer still feels a lot of sympathy for him, and understands him very well.

Top-notch support is provided by Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood, who also give layered and equally sympathetic portrayals of their “delinquent” characters.

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(Image via Marc Burba)

Mineo’s performance is very sensitive, a contrast to the film’s tougher characters, which is odd considering the first thing we learn about him is that he’s in trouble with the law for shooting puppies. He’s obviously still a very distrubed character, but the viewer feels for him, since he has been left so alone by the parent who is supposed to provide for him, and love him.

As for Wood, she seems to have just been great in every film she made. The more I watch her, the more I love her. Paired with Dean, she’s even better; their understated, yet highly emotive styles of performance mirror each other.

Re-watching all of the films in “The Complete James Dean Collection” boxed set has confirmed that Rebel Without a Cause is my top-ranked starring flick from the actor.

Special features on DVD:

Lots of good stuff to watch on the two-disc DVD included in The Complete James Dean Collection. Here’s a list:

  • Commentary by The Making of Rebel Without a Cause author Douglas L. Rathgeb
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Rebel Without a Cause: Defiant Innocents (50th anniversary documentary)
  • James Dean Remembered (Documentary)
  • Additional scenes, without sound
  • Three James Dean segments from the TV series Warner Bros. Presents
  • Screen tests and wardrobe tests
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7 thoughts on “The Films of James Dean: Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

  1. Teen delinquency movies may have been a dime a dozen in the fifties, and most were bargain-basement exploitation flicks or (after rebel) cheapo attempts to draw a teenage audience. One other that I’d mention as a candidate for “classic,” however, is “Blackboard Jungle,” which came out about six months before “Rebel.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Had I been alive then, those attempts would have worked on me. I like to watch those cheapies on occasion, haha. Thanks for bringing up Blackboard Jungle, I’ve been meaning to re-watch it! I have it on DVD but haven’t given it a look in several years, so perhaps I’ll review it soon.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Good one! I always think of that as more of just a biker movie than delinquency flick, possibly because Brando doesn’t look very “juvenile” in it. Then again, neither do the “kids” in Grease, haha. It’s a good example. Thanks for mentioning it!

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