AFI Countdown Challenge #59: Rebel Without A Cause

I usually do a quick Wikipedia search for anything I write up here, mostly to make sure I spell names correctly.  But then I had a thought about 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause which turned out to be very much correct.  Star James Dean, of course, died at the age of 24 in a car crash.  Sal Mineo, who played the emotionally unstable Plato in the movie, was stabbed to death at the age of 37.  Natalie Wood, the female lead, died in a suspicious drowning accident at 44.  Essentially, all the main “kids” in the movie died young.

Jim Backus, meanwhile, best known for Gilligan’s Island and Mr. Magoo, played Dean’s father and he died at the ripe old age of 76.  Just sayin’.

Rebel Without a Cause is, easily, the best known role James Dean ever played, and his look in the movie, the red jacket over the white t-shirt with his hair slicked back, has been copied many times over.  Heck, the look was used for Fry on Futurama, a fact that, if you didn’t know it before, will alter the way you view that character now.  And Dean is great in the role.  As the film opens and we see Dean’s Jim Stark, drunk and rolling around in the street, it establishes the young man as someone to watch for the next nearly two hours as he mumbles and mopes, trying to figure out a path for himself.  He is, as the title suggests, a rebel without any sort of cause to rebel against.

Except, I don’t think that’s true.

What jumps out at me the most is Rebel Without a Cause, despite its reputation about a bad boy doing as he sees fit and looking cool the whole time, is a remarkably conservative film.  I expect as much from a major studio release from 1955, but that doesn’t make it any less so.  Jim does have something he wants, and it is something the film underlines for all three of the main kids in the movie, namely Jim, his love interest Judy, and his disturbed new friend Plato:  a strong father figure.

Jim’s father Frank is, to put it mildly, a wimp.  When Jim attacks his father, he doesn’t do it to hurt the older man.  He wants his father to offer rock solid advice, listen to his son, and heck, be an authority in his own home and stop letting Jim’s mother push him around.  We see Frank come closest before the movie ends in a scene when he comes to see Jim after his son has been stabbed a couple times in a knife fight the boy didn’t want to get involved in.  Jim wants to know about honor, and all Frank can offer is the idea that whatever is bothering his troubled, bleeding son will seem silly in ten years.  That ten years thing is probably true in the grand scheme of things, but it doesn’t exactly help Jim out in the here and now when he’s been challenged to a game of chicken.  Compound this with Frank’s overall actions, wearing a ridiculous yellow apron covered in flowers and serving his son food while being completely unable to offer any sort of definitive statements about anything. Frank has been emasculated in his own home, and later in the film when Jim asks his father to stand up and say something, the older man can only hang his head in shame.  That, more than anything else, is what Jim is rebelling against:  a lack of a strong father.

It’s a pattern we see with Judy and Plato as well.  All three are being held in a police station at the start of the film for different reasons.  Judy broke curfew, and she wants her father to show her some attention like he used to when she was a little girl.  Plato, on the other hand, doesn’t even have a father.  His mother is out of town on business and on his birthday no less, and the only one there for him is a housekeeper.  Why was Plato brought in?  He shot a litter of puppies.

Hold on.  He did what now?  And they let him go?

Plato, it should be noted, is a bit mentally disturbed no matter how you slice it.  He has a gun at various points in the film, claims to be closer to Jim than he actually may be at various points, and ends up dead when a cop shoots him for running out of the planetarium with that gun in the film’s conclusion.  Dean gets a lot of credit for his iconic role here, but Mineo is no slouch as a twitchy kids full of hard edges that you know things won’t end well for.

As it is, the film ends with, among other things, Frank promising to be a father and not a friend to his son from then on.  But I have to ask:  is Frank even capable of such things?  That’s a major personality shift that might be too much to ask for any human being.  It’s a more ambiguous ending, but it could be one Jim needs.  Jim isn’t that bad a kid.  He respects cops, even going to one when he thinks he’s in real trouble only to learn the man isn’t at the station at that time.  He doesn’t really want to get into a knife fight or the iconic game of chicken, but he does due to confusion and peer pressure, partially even out of self-defense.  Jim may feel he’s being torn apart in a line ruined by Tommy Wiseau, but he isn’t a bad kid.  He’s just in need of strong guidance, as do Plato and Judy and probably all the other kids the movie depicts.

Director Nicholas Ray, it should be pointed out, followed this one up with an even more morally ambiguous film called Bigger Than Life in which James Mason plays a teacher who needs to take cortisone pills to fight a medical condition that will kill him, but over time causes mood swings and a near psychotic break.  It’s an underrated, lesser-known gem, and I highly recommend it.

NEXT UP:  We have our first animated film from Disney, one of two, the 1940 ode to classical music Fantasia.


Defender of the faith, contributing writer, debonair man-about-town.

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