Rebel Without a Cause

Year: 1955
Studio: Warner Bros
Director: Nicholas Ray
Writer: Stewart Stern/Irving Shulman
Cast: James Dean, Natalie Wood, Jim Backus, Sal Mineo, Dennis Hopper, Edward Platt

...in which James Dean can't find a father in Gilligan's Island's Thurston Howell and finds one in Maxwell Smart's boss.

This is an example of a movie whose mystique has outgrown the story itself and become iconic for something it really doesn't represent. James Dean driving a car towards the cliffs in his red jacket is as familiar an image as him sitting, feet propped up on the dash of a roadster in his cowboy hat, from Giant.

Contrary to what the title suggests, I think Jim (Dean) does have a cause. Quite simply, he wants his father Frank (Jim Backus) to be the kind of man he can look up to, and no matter how much he screams at his Dad to try to get him to stand up to his domineering wife or stand up for Jim himself, Frank either can't or won't.

So Jim goes looking for an erstwhile family of his own, which he finds in popular girl Judy (Natalie Wood) and new friend Plato (Sal Mineo). Jim has to befriend them fast, anchorless after having just moved again, and stay out of the way of bullies like Buzz Gunderson who just want to pick on him.

Over the course of a couple of fateful nights, Jim searches for something he can barely express. He latches on to the understanding of the cop (Edward Platt) who books him for drunk and disorderly as the film opens. He goes on a field trip to an observatory and wonders about his – and everyone's – place in the universe. And he talks his new best friend down when he's holed up with a gun, the cops swarming all over outside.

It all gives the movie a free-wheeling structure and makes a good portion of it fairly inaccessible as the young heroes lurch from one emotional episode to the next – whether it involves the central game of chicken that ends in tragedy, the knife fight or the kiss stolen in an abandoned mansion.

It's all played out against the backdrop of the endlessly filmable Griffith Observatory overlooking Los Angeles, and – impressively for the time – behaves like a modern independent movie, giving little away about its intentions and open to interpretation and reinterpretation.

Of course, there might not be any deeper point at all. It might just have been a way to showcase the hottest young actor around and have teenage girls flock to cinemas and part with their money by depicting him as a sad rogue who really just wants to be loved.

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