It’s a double-edged sword that Rebel Without a Cause is simultaneously the raison d’ etre for many a cinephile’s knowledge of director Nicholas Ray at all, and that it is, simultaneously, a black hole suffocating energy and consideration from Ray’s cinematic canon elsewhere. Not to mention, for most people, the name associated with Rebel is not Ray, the underdog of American film in the ’50s and perhaps the missing link between the classical Hollywood melodrama and the angry young hooligans like Godard and Cassavetes of the ’60s. Instead, the claim to fame of Rebel is the hot-headed bundle of nerves that was James Dean, arguably the pop culture icon of the ’50s as well as an embodiment of the very spirit Nicholas Ray epitomized as a filmmaker: pulpy but passionate, lean but expressively sensitive, expressionistic but timid, and above all trembling with the unspeakable, implacable throb of constantly spinning out of control.
Dean’s career was, of course, short-lived, but Ray’s was cut tragically short as well after roughly a decade of vituperative Hollywood spitfire. He didn’t pass from this earth like Dean; in some ways, his prison was more tragic, left squandering for scraps of life in various parts of the world, ostracized by the very film community that never really called him a kindred spirit to begin with. Both Dean and Ray were outsiders, and Rebel Without a Cause is, if much more, also a defining outsider tale that casts the pall of “outsider” not around one felled soul but over the wide swath of each and every one of us. The film embodies Dean’s spurts of rage and his manic charisma as well as the lonely longing for a connection underscoring those tempestuous outbursts. As importantly, Ray’s flaring, blaring style – a kindred spirit of Dean’s torrid acting habits – expresses the reckless endangerment of not only teen culture but the death spasms of the classical Hollywood picture.
Although the trio of youths in Rebel are easily written off as hipster-adjacent enfant terribles, the beauty of Rebel is its expression of teenage anger not as a rebellion against institutional structures so much as a riposte to the sensory mollification and placidity that underscores those structures. In Dean’s scorching, flagellating beats underpinned by reservoirs of guilt and identity waiting to be formed, Ray’s sensuous, anti-intellectual pangs of regret, humor, and whimsy find a personification of sensational experience and percpetual fluidity as an ideal of life. Melodrama in Rebel is not simply a technique but a way of life, a beckoning cry to exert, to feel the world even if it means overemphasizing and emoting beyond the realms of what may be considered “realistic” or “true”. Those who reap humor from the overzealous, cantankerous treatment of the parents in the film – Dean’s constant bickering partners – misconstrue the nature of a film that contrasts one variety of negative melodrama – dry, prerehearsed, flaccidly detached in its Hollywood unreality – with another form of positive melodrama – tumultuous, affectionate, attuned to an externality we often write off as performative and trivial. In this melodrama, exaggeration becomes a portal into a human soul raised to underemote, to mask, and to stagnate; it becomes a fighting chance against the troubles and perils of normalcy.
Ray and Dean see overly-sensory consciousness as relieving and refreshingly robust in its outre announcement of emotion, of feeling or touching, as a redressment for the axiomatic sterility and composure of modern society. Ray’s best films – Johnny Guitar and Bigger Than Life – are from-the-rafters proclamations of sensing-first individual energy being trampled upon by the clarity of society, not so much asocial films as harbingers of new notions of society. In the radiating intimation of teenagers who rebel by attacking Western society’s basic tenants of liberal composure, Ray’s film posits the nervous, jittery, ultimately warming glow of the unleashed, emotional human aura lacerating propriety, and he pines for a world in which this can contextualize a new mode of doomed human relation.
As such, Rebel Without a Cause is also an expression of identity as mutable and ultimately uncontrollable, barreling forth from the bowels with a brio that remains unknowable but not imperceptible. For this reason, the film’s focus is all off-kiltered and askew, even nonexistent, for its impetus is not conclusion or complacency or definitive truth but endangerment, rule-breaking, and disruption. That the teenagers never truly articulate an alternate vision of society – that they don’t much articulate themselves through the ostensibly formal, complete, but ultimately constructed and pedantic full sentences of their parents – is part and parcel with the film’s venomous jolt of fluxional energy. We’re watching characters lost in the world, finding holes and poking through them with no idea where they’re going, reacting with guttural, bodily instincts rather than preprogrammed communications.
This act of poking holes, for Jim (Dean), Judy (Natalie Wood), and Plato (Sal Mineo), entails fracturing their ossified psyches with edges of sexual confusion and prismatic desire, with Ray vacillating between Jim and Judy’s love, Judy’s naggingly uncertain (for her) thirst for her father, and, most tragically, Plato’s unrequited idolation of and affection for Jim. In Rebel, however, desire is the sweat of a brow, a small human perspiration threatening to invade an antiseptic, hysterectomized world. Attention must be paid to the carnal nature of the drama in the film, which is both affectively performative and gutturally embodied, a noble lexicon for understanding how the teens feel at once home and alien in their own bodies after having been denied bodily expression in American society.
The deliberately hyperbolic, non-naturalist melodrama, as in all Ray’s films, becomes both a prism and a prison. On one hand, it’s an expression of falsified, alienating emotion that separates us from ourselves by forcing us to act out social roles, to perform. On the other hand, it also – as in the final moments where the trio perform a ruthless satire of everyday values – revitalizes us with the knowledge that performance can become our weapon and reanimates us with the understanding that performing outward emotion, rather than hiding it, is a form of theatricality that expands our sense of self rather than simply clamping down on it. It enjoins us to express externalized versions of internal feeling we’ve been taught by the veneer of not only society but naturalist cinema to hide. The flailing, palpitating, quivering nature of emotion can be a mechanism to appreciating the senses, to opening oneself up to both the world and the cavernous faculties of our inner selves, even to connecting the two. Not that the film is camp, but the animating spirit of the piece – and all of Ray’s cinema – is very much akin to the viscous unease proposed by camp where we learn about ourselves through contrast, through exploring the constructedness of identity via the embodiment of seemingly fake or weird identities we are inclined to doubt or eschew as silly at face value.
Which is where the gaudy visual structure of the film – a Frankensteinian hodgepodge of direct, unstable rawness in the camera and florid ornamentation in the color saturation – enjoins us to consider the ever-malleable, consternated, unsure nature of the film itself, a work that could as easily prelude both the experimental cinema verite grottos of Cassavetes and the Technicolor sumptuousness and marvelousness of a Robert Wise musical or a David Lean epic. That ambidextrous fluidity to the film is not only testament to its clerical, historical value but to its potent instability as a cinematic object. The vivid clash between internal want and social expectation is architexturalized in the violent contrast between the lustful, salacious colors of canonical cinematographer Ernest Haller and the oppressive framing of Ray’s camera that can convey prowling flexibility and damaged entrapment at once.
Elsewhere, Ray’s parade of reds and blues – cheeky critiques of American lore and artifice – are also loving paeans to taking in the external world. His almost hallucinatory style, both cloud-nine daydream and feverish nightmare, is at once a poetic expression of the unconscious dreams that structure life and a slashing whip casting lesions upon those dreams. Acclimatizing to the film’s shifts in mood, tempo, and tone – noir one minute, kinky comedy in another, moral picture in the next – not only keeps us on our toes but reenvisions the world as a place of supple, pliable emotions and mental states. Romanticism and eroticism, comedy and unnerving eeriness, scintillation and skin-crawlers, and joie de vivre and forlorn dejection exist not as bounded, inflexible, diametric opposites but relative, contingent, cohabitating states of experience.
Rebel’s task is to attune us to all of them, and then, in a profound self-immolating gesture, to intimate that such awareness is as futile and destructive as it is necessary and vigorous. The pain Jim feels is mental, sure, but in Dean’s lacerating performance – absent any of the Method-y ticks and tricks Elia Kazan would force upon him in East of Eden – it feels like the stabbing existential shrapnel of someone opening themselves up to the world and feeling the pin pricks of unshackled sensation for the first time.
This is off-road cinema, any icy hotbox of film both underground and surface-level, replete with beasts and monsters tethering youthful discontent and social dislocation into two-fisted opposition and subsistence. In the demented finale, the teenager’s makeshift civilization – flashing the lightning of present life into the decrepit innards of an abandoned mansion that serves as a mausoleum of the past – is cut short by a materialized “Man”. It remains one of the great “what if” scenes in all of cinema, a reminder of what could have been, and what could be if we only experience the world, and the untidy and contradictory impulses that provide life with its gusto, rather than closing ourselves off from it.
What precisely does the film achieves in this epochal final act? Jim, Judy, and Plato escape to the abandoned mansion, a marker of a dead or decomposed, rotted society. There, they are free at last, able to play out a parody of middlebrow conformity and domesticity in a temporary home of their own imaginative making. The faded manse is emptied out of décor so that they can fill it in with an imaginative participation in a new, more open world, pretending to be a hypothetical non-nuclear family emancipated from society’s assumptions about their futures or acceptable decorum. The architecture around them becomes the mental geometry of possibility, of a truly liberated society, the three of them queering the space as they walk along it.
But Rebel is deeply skeptical about the permanence of this imaginative escapade, ultimately tarnishing it by casting it as impure, threatened, and in mortal combat with the norms of wider society. The hermetic seal of imagination breaks when the rest of the world arrives. Dean and Wood ultimately make it out, but Mineo’s character, frightened at the possibility of returning to a society that doesn’t want him as he truly is, wields a gun and refuses to leave the mansion, his one true hypothetical opportunity for a life of unsublimated desire and freedom. Mineo, well known as gay at the time, subtly queers his character throughout the film, and when Dean returns to ask him to put down the gun and send him outside – tragically to his eventual death, unbeknownst to Dean – Jim becomes a traitor to his own ideals. He talks down Plato in what amounts to an inverted femme fatale seduction, with Dean cast in the alluring shadows of reflected water, which suggests impermanence, instability, suspicion, and uncertain morality. The watery reflection is a premonition of instability, of a once-solidified face (Dean’s, the youthful rebel’s face) now warped and in transition, unstable, soon to be reshaped and to take on a new form that fits the container he is given.
That container? When Dean gives his flaring red coat to Mineo, the latter passes the image of undomesticated, bold-colored, declarative rebellion to Plato, the true rebel, an unassimilable and non-white queer to Dean’s ultimately accommodating and soon-to-be-assimilated figure. Lacking his coat, his father gives him his, Jim finally donning the imaginative garb of the figure he so hates, becoming, visually, an embodiment of milquetoast white-bread Americana. The coats have been traded, and the roles with them. Plato (who also, tellingly, has a black maid of a mother in the film) becomes the now-deceased hope for true social rebellion. America has stamped down on real multi-ethnic opportunity and the temporary flickers of non-conformity, of the possibility of the subaltern living out as they want in America.
In the final moments, the film feeds on the anxiety and neuroticism of the-now defanged Dean obviously about to be tragically assimilated into the society he once disdained and still thinks he does, about to walk out of the film and probably into middle-class America. For a little while, the film played out a narrative of the mind with him and his friends, but it was a narrative incommensurable with the world around them, the world that wanted them to be as it wanted them to be. The film has ushered these children out of their liminal space between childhood and adulthood, subaltern and normative, and reflected how society either kills them or conditions them unthinkingly, casting a commodifying and normativizing pall over everything that has come before.
With the disquieting fragility of possibility outflanked by the engulfing mechanisms of social expectation, Rebel Without a Cause is one of Nicholas Ray’s – one of cinema’s – ultimate subtextual commentaries on the fate of those who would defy, and one of the ultimate examples of the cinematic double-address, of a subcutaneous narrative playing out just beneath the surface. Along with other films as well as the modernistic literature, music, and painting of artists both white and black, male and female, Rebel shows us that the much-mocked era of the American ‘50s was not only a time of sunny optimism and conformity. It was also filled with deep reservoirs of cultural anxiety and subterranean currents of existential uncertainty, expressed not only in political critique but through experiments in form that reveal artists scrambling for a new mode of expression commensurable with the new anxieties of the era. Yes, Rebel devastates the possibility of ultimate certainty and denies us the moral reassurance that Jim’s rebellion is permanent and will continue beyond the bounds of the film. But the films of Nicholas Ray, by virtue of their bifurcated narrative layers trafficking in duality, implication, and insinuation, are testament to the minds of artistic rebels who will always tear open fissures in social complacency to reveal the slivers of discontent and uncertainty bubbling underneath.