Rebel Without a Cause is a 1955 film directed by Nicolas Ray and starring James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo and follows a group of delinquent teenagers who come from middle class families. The film was the second major role for James Dean after a number of bit parts and an Academy Award nominated performance for his turn in East of Eden. The film is especially significant because of when it was released. Dean was killed in a car accident on September 30, 1955 at the age of 24. The film was released on October 27. The film was well received and drew good reviews from critics impressed with the acting chops of Dean and many of the other young cast members. It went on to be nominated for three Academy Awards- Best Writing (Nicolas Ray), Best Supporting Actor (Mineo), and Best Supporting Actress (Wood). The film continues to be popular having made a number of “best of” lists down through the years. So does this film from the iconic James Dean deserve the label of classic?
Should this film be considered a classic? I’m going to break with consensus here and say that it should not. I’ll readily agree with those who point to the stellar performances of all the cast members. I understand the appeal of the film because of all the mystery surrounding the young death of James Dean. I also get the points the film was trying to make as a social commentary on teenagers, parents, and society. That said, I simply did not find the story compelling. I thought the story was very disjointed and lacked a good sense of narrative flow. In that way it actually reminded me of Apocalypse Now because it too has a story that often seemed a bit abrupt to me as it moved from one act to the next. I also just have a really hard time dealing with the completely inept father figure of Dean’s character in the movie. He is so painful to watch on screen that I found myself cringing as I watched his scenes. I realize that is likely the point the filmmakers were trying to convey with that character but he is so grating that he sucked all the life out of the film as I watched it. I also really disliked the nihilistic tone of the movie. The movie didn’t even try to mask the nihilism as it is on full display in the narration during the planetarium show. That theme of hopelessness which so characterizes nihilism is ever present in the film and makes it tiresome to watch. I don’t expect films to be all bunny rabbits and unicorns. A dark film done right can be great, really great. The potential was definitely there for this film but I just don’t think it was executed well.
Would I own this film? I admit that I really expected to like this film. I’d never seen it before and had never seen any of Dean’s other work. I was ready for a film about teenage rebellion. I was ready for some tough social commentary. I was ready for a dark movie. I was not ready for the disjointed story and nihilism. I don’t like nihilism. It’s a failure when it comes to philosophy. It’s a failure when applied to life. It’s a failure when it comes to art. No, I wouldn’t own this film because good acting is not enough to salvage a story that jerks along like a carnival ride or the nihilistic thinking that seems to run through the whole thing.