Sitting in a Los Angeles police station dressed in a well tailored suit while his parents hash out their marital problems, Jim Stark (James Dean) cries out “You’re tearing me apart!”. Arguably the most famous line from Nicholas Ray’s 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause, the statement stands as an emblem for the film’s overall theme of youthful rebellion. It is this youthful rebellion at the heart of the film that had made Rebel Without a Cause such a success upon its release and has continued its influence throughout film history and its ultimate cult status.
Rebel Without a Cause was a film that was released just when it needed to be; the family structure had been shaken after the Second World War and now the women of the family were going off to work along with the men and the family dynamic had been drastically altered. There was a feeling of a crisis of masculinity and we see this so perfectly represented in Mr. Stark when he brings food to his wife in her bedroom while donning a floral yellow apron. In the film, the shift in family dynamics becomes the centre of Jim’s angst while he tries to figure out his own place in society and what it means to be a man. 1955 had also been a time where the majority of film goers were young adults, so the themes of youth and angst spoke directly to a generation that spent most of their free time in front of big screens.
The film’s three main characters, Judy (Nathalie Wood), Jim, and Plato (Sal Mineo), are not only captivating to watch as their own personal struggles unfold on screen, they are completely relatable to youth audiences that weren’t as accustom to seeing young characters portrayed honestly. Wood’s character Judy must come to terms with becoming an adult and being refused the affections of her father as she begins to mature while Jim tries to find his place as an adult amongst adults that are as confused as he is. Mineo’s character is by far the most powerful as we see the effects that absent parenting has on not only his social interactions but ultimately his mental health and stability. The representation of youth as emerging adults rather than children has made Rebel such an attractive film for young adults even today.
It wouldn’t be surprising then that this film would not only speak to the youth of this time, but also a new wave of filmmakers coming out of France at the time that wanted to change the way that films were made and “rebel” against the conventions set within filmmaking. Nicholas Ray, with films like Rebel and Johnny Guitar (USA, 1954), quickly became one of the favourite American directors working out of Hollywood for the French New Waves directors. In Cahiers du Cinéma, Francois Truffaut praises Ray, calling him the “Rossellini of Hollywood” for creating emotionally charged images in the mechanical world of American filmmaking. Ray’s particular auteur style made him popular amongst these filmmakers who would become the figureheads of auteur filmmaking and change the way films are made.
Rebel Without a Cause is the first UCFS weekly screening for the semester’s series on Teen, Cult, and Animation films. Screening is this Friday September 18th at 5 PM in room SS 203. See you there!
By Rashelle Ashcroft