Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without A Cause (1955) remains a rather powerful indictment on middle class America’s urban mismanagement of the young. It is a powerful, thoughtful, and quite often compelling character study and critique of the generation gap. In only his second film, James Dean embodies the social angst and frustration that has continued to define troubled teens for generations to come.
Dean is Jim Stark, a loner who discovers that trouble is where you find it. On this occasion, Jim finds his with slick greaser, Buzz (Corey Allen). After a switchblade confrontation while on a field trip to the planetarium, the two adversaries embark on a fatal game of chicken. Buzz is accidentally killed and Jim and Buzz’s ex, Judy (Natalie Wood) develop a burgeoning romance along the lines of a surrogate family for the confused social misfit, Plato (Sal Mineo).
Two set pieces; the ‘chickie’ run and the climactic showdown at the space observatory where Plato meets with an untimely end were justly celebrated then as defining moments in the emerging counter culture of teen rebellion. Though much of the film’s critique on the emasculation of the male identity in contemporary society seems slightly dated by today’s standards, what is perhaps most reticent about Nicholas Ray’s pop culture potboiler today is its ability to connect with youth on a base and visceral level. Society may have changed since Jim Stark's time, but James Dean's performance remains just as potent and disturbing today.
Dean’s 'method acting' approach to Jim treads the narrowest of margins between artistic representation and truth. Are we watching James Dean the actor, or simply James Dean? We're never quite sure because Dean was rather devious in blurring the line between the characters he played and the person he actually was. With Dean’s untimely death in an auto accident just months after completion of this film, the old adage of art imitating life rang painfully true for teenagers around the world. Arguably, it cemented Dean's iconography as a 'troubled' star into legend that continues to dog and/or galvanize his reputation with fans to this day.
Warner Home Video’s reissued 2-disc edition of Rebel delivers a more refined image than its single disc from a few years back. Colors appear slightly deeper, richer, while adopting an overall slightly more reddish hue. Flesh tones are slightly more pink this time around. This 2-disc DVD has a hint of edge enhancement that was not present on the single disc and that's a pity. Otherwise, this is a fine upgrade worthy of a repurchase.
The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital, recapturing much of the glory of Cinemascope's early six track stereo. Extras include a new ‘making-of’ featurette, a vintage documentary on James Dean’s life, outtakes and deleted scenes and an informative audio commentary. Recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)