Canon of Film

October 25, 2017

CANON OF FILM: ‘Rebel Without A Cause’

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Written by: David Baruffi
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Rebel Without a Cause

In this edition of CANON OF FILM, we look at the James Dean classic, ‘Rebel Without a Cause‘. For the story behind the genesis of the Canon, you can click here.


Director: Nicholas Ray

Screenplay: Stewart Stern; adapted by Irving Shulman, from a story by Nicholas Ray

When I was 12-years old, I don’t know exactly what it was that possessed me to do so, but I sat down one night and watched ‘Rebel Without a Cause.’ I was into old-time 50s nostalgia, such as ‘Grease,’ and ‘Happy Days,’ and decided to see this movie and the James Dean persona/image that influenced many of that decade. Yet, what I found was something else that day. the realization that a film could reveal hidden messages, meanings, and metaphors that aren’t just what the film is about. I remember it distinctly, Jim Backus, who you’d remember more from ‘Gilligan’s Island,’ and the voice of ‘Mr. Magoo,’ played James Dean’s father, was kneeling down on the floor in his business suit and a pink apron over it cleaning up something from the floor, and then the disgust from Jim’s face looking at him pathetically. That’s when I first realized that the movie had something to do about masculinity, or lack thereof of it.  I couldn’t put it into words that eloquently then, but the recognition of it was there. Realizing this helped me enjoy the movie more than I probably would have, even though I didn’t understand every underlying message of the film.

Rebel Without a CauseWatching the movie now, the masculine/feminine conflict of the film is more apparent. Watch how often we see the collision of a circular/hollowed object, along with a long phallic object. James Dean isn’t the brawling image of masculinity that say… John Wayne is. As Jim Stark, he wears a red jacket and a shirt that almost seems pink in the wrong light, than a bully puts a knife through his tire (Circular and Hollow), and then they get into a knife fight around a telescope at the planetarium their field trip is at. It’s not exactly convenient either that Jim falls for Buzz’s girl Judy (Natalie Wood) but more interestingly, Plato (Sal Mineo) seems to act very eager to be around Jim, whether Jim wants him there or not. Yes, although it’s never mentioned, Plato is gay. I didn’t get that when I was twelve, at least not at first, but it’s clear as can be now.

There’s two common themes that bring these people together in ‘Rebel Without A Cause’. One, being is there own perceptions of there lousy fathers. Jim’s because he’s too weak of a man, so weak that Jim feels he need to protect his honor when he’s called “chicken.” (substitute “chicken” for that  6-letter F-word.) Not to mention his overbearing mother and grandmother. In Judy’s father’s (William Hopper) disgust is shown when she tries to kiss him goodnight, and he yells at her wondering why a 16-year-old girl would still kiss her father. He’s suffering from a mid-life crisis, involving the fact that her daughter looks like Natalie Wood and not he’s blind, and the only way he knows to control those thoughts is with blind random outbursts of rage. Plato’s father is absent, and his family situation is somewhat of a secret for most of the film; he apparently changes his story a few times. The incident that brings them together is in “chickie run” drag race on the top of a bluff between Buzz (Corey Allen) and Jim, which ends in Buzz’s death through yet another phallic object in a hollow circle.

Rebel Without a CauseWhere the movie goes from there makes the film’s ending one of the cinema’s most heart-wrenching and shocking, especially rare for a 50s film. Maybe it’s its look at teen angst or the fact that the teens act out due to their lack of angst. Oh–that’s the second common theme between the characters, confusion, about the ways of the world, their homelife, the behavior of others, and the way of the world at large. I say confusion, because the term “teenage alienation,” wasn’t invented until years later after ‘Rebel Without a Cause‘ was released. I associate it with the early nineties’ grunge era, but Nicholas Ray made many movies about that feeling of alienation. Recently, his films as a whole have gotten a second look, where similar to Douglas Sirk’s films of the same era, hidden meaning and subtexts are somewhat clearer now than they were then (Ray’s other major films include ‘In a Lonely Place,’ where Humphrey Bogart plays an aggressive brawling, drunk screenwriter, and “Johnny Guitar,” which is also a metaphorical masterpiece that has several sexual undertones to it; it’s one of the few Westerns I can think of were not only is the main battle between two women, but the town’s seems castrated by them to basically become their armies in their battle.)

I also call these kids confused, because, alienation is a general term, and they are simply unsure or don’t understand the world around them, and their natural instinct is to reject. You gotta understand, teenager weren’t a thing until, around the forties and fifties, before then, you were typically already preparing for marriage or war or a career, this was the first generation where people were well-off enough that they could be teenagers.  Jim Stark not only doesn’t have a cause, he’s really not even a rebel. The fact that James Dean died a month before the film was released made his performance eerie. Today, the movie feels obviously dated, but not because the movie is dated, but because the era of the film is. Emotionally, it’s more relevant now than ever. I can easily see somebody making a modern version of this and thinking it’s about whatever cliche stereotype of Millennials they have, of course, if they did that, they’d probably be completely missing the subtext. It’s not about the teenagers, it’s the situation they find themselves in, one they do not understand and that they didn’t design,  They’re true rebellion is to the fact that they’re forced into this world, against their own will and their own choice, and they even really lead them a guidebook with answers to their real questions.

Twenty years later, ‘American Graffiti,’ dared to call this era “nostalgia,” complete with a drag race that is just as memorable as this film. The era was, but that feeling of alienation holds truer than most later Grunge ideals of it that came decades later. It’s as observant as it is prophetic. Notice the conversation topics between the kids, how they talk about how lousy their parents are, and then they decide to follow the ideas of their peers. That sounds typical of teenagers, but you didn’t see that in a movie before this one.

Rebel Without a Cause

About the Author

David Baruffi
David Baruffi
David Baruffi has been a successful unemployed screenwriter for, let's be vague and call it "years". He's got a B.A. in Film Studies from UNLV, is a certified script supervisor and has done a little bit of everything in film, but mostly is a writer. Personally on his own blog "David Baruffi's Entertainment Views and Reviews" which is at,and professionally has written several scripts and stories, for himself, and for others and as a ghostwriter. When he's not doing that he watches his autistic brother most days and he looks like two old puppets.



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