Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

Title: Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
Director: Nicholas Ray
Writer/s: Stewart Stern, Nicholas Ray, Irving Shulman

I have wanted to watch this film for a very, very long time owing to my morbid fascination with the very short life of actor James Dean. He died at the age of 24 in a fatal car accident and for some odd reason I was convinced that this film was entirely made up of car races. I mean, there is a race, and it doesn’t end very well, but that is not what Rebel without a Cause is about. The legend attached to this film is that Dean died before it was released. Films about a day in the life of teenage rebels will continue to be made for the next 60 years. Every generation of misunderstood youth will be preserved forever on the screen, and no matter how banal their anxieties may seem to the average adult once upon a time the world seemed a very different place to their eighteen year old self.


In this film, the film that made the dreamy James Dean a star (posthumously), we are introduced to three high school kids that have all ended up at the local police station for various reasons. It’s late at night and Jim Stark (Dean) has just been picked up for drunk and disorderly behaviour. He’s creating a scene in the police station, and is being completely ignored by two other renegades, the weepy Judy (Natalie Wood) and the spoilt rich kid John (Sal Mineo) who shoots puppies. Each kid is interrogated as to why they ended up at the station so late at night – Jim ended up in a fight because someone called him ‘Chicken’ (and he hates that apparently). Jim is angry with his parents because they are always fighting and make him constantly feel as though he’s being pulled between the two of them, and that he’s the cause of their problems and the reason they keep moving. Judy’s relationship with her father is strained due to his resistance to her growing up. John never seems to see either of his parents at all, and is displaying rather psychotic behaviour i.e shooting puppies (who shoots puppies?). They are all sent home, but these three strangers will meet again…

The following day Jim is leaving the house for his first day at a new school. They’ve just moved there, and his father warns him not to let his friends choose him, advice that makes Jim angry all over again. Also leaving for school is Judy, smoking a cigarette and waiting for her friends to pick her up. Jim tries to chat her up, but she rebuffs him and declines his lift to school as she is catching a ride with ‘The Kids”. The Kids turn out to be a bunch of rude adolescents that chew bubblegum, shout profanities at people in authority, drive fast cars and generally believe they are cooler than they actually are. The typical teenager convinced that they are indeed invincible. One of these Kids is called ‘Buzz’ and he appears to be Judy’s beau. I don’t really see the appeal as Buzz is a bit of an arse.

On the first day of school the seniors go on a field trip to the local Planetarium. These scenes were all filmed at the famous Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, California. It has been used as a location for many films including (and my favourites) Flash Gordon (1974), Back to the Future (1985), Earth Girls Are Easy (1988), Devil in a Blue Dress (1995) and the more recent La La Land (2016). The Planetarium is dark and beautiful and romantic, and the kids have no real appreciation for it. They make a lot of noise and even though Jim joins in, its very clear that he has not been accepted. He’s the outsider, the new kid – typical scenario really. Once outside the building after the fieldtrip is over Buzz and his gang of obnoxious hoodlums tease Jim and challenge him to a knife fight. Jim is too good for knife fights. He declines and the Planetarium’s security end up getting involved, but not before Buzz has decided that he and Jim are going to play a little game of ‘Chicken’ that night. Jim claims to play it all the time, but once the Kids have left and he is standing alone at the Observatory with John (the puppy killer) he asks him exactly what ‘Chicken’ is. One just knows this is going to end badly….


That night the Kids, Jim, John and Judy are all ready for the big race- the game of Chicken. Two kids must drive to the edge of a cliff really fast and the first person to leap out of their (stolen) car is the so-called ‘chicken”, and we know how Jim feels about being called that. It all seems extremely irresponsible and dangerous, but this form of teenage rebellion as a way of initiation is not uncommon. That sense of being utterly invincible is in the air. You can feel it. The notion that these kids are going to drive towards a cliff and leap out of moving vehicles seems so far removed from the complete belief that they are going to be doing something really important. In their minds this is all necessary, and in the end they are just kids after all. Before the big race Jim and Buzz stand alone at the edge of the cliff looking out to sea and they share a cigarette. Buzz casually admits that he actually likes Jim to which Jim asks “then why do we do this?”. “We gotta do something”, Buzz says.

After the kids that have come to see the show have lit up the hillside with their headlights the race begins and well, Buzz doesn’t make it. The devastating race ends in Buzz’s jacket getting caught on the car’s door handle, being unable to jump, and flying off the edge of the cliff to his death. Jim survives having jumped out of his car on time. The kids all stand at the edge of the cliff looking down on Buzz’s car which is now in flames, and they slowly begin to scatter. In the end the only ones left at the scene of the accident are Jim, Judy and John. Jim gives the devastated Judy his hand and all three leave together.

When Jim returns home he feels compelled to confess to his parents that the kid that died that night was a kid he knew, and most importantly that he was involved in the very same car race that killed this kid. His parents are justifiably shocked but also try to convince Jim not to get involved further. This makes Jim angry and he screams at them that they are all involved. He races off to the police station to confess, but when he gets there he is ignored and told to come back in the morning. Before entering the station however he is seen entering the building by the rest of the Kids that were at the race that night. They panic as they think Jim will confess.

In the meantime Jim and Judy have met up, and after Judy confesses to feeling numb over Buzz’s death, she suggest they go somewhere to hide away from the rest of the Kids that they now realize must be looking for them. She also apologises to Jim for the way she first treated him when she was with The Kids: “no one is sincere”, she complains. At the Planetarium John had mentioned an abandoned mansion that he often visits to hide away from his parents. This particular mansion was used in the 1950’s film Sunset Boulevard, and contains an empty swimming pool that the kids hang out in. They wander around the dark mansion with Jim and Judy pretending to be a married couple looking over their new potential home, and John acting as the real estate agent. They make jokes about how children should be hidden away and why anyone would want to bother with having any children at all. In a very real way these three are rebelling against the terrible parents they seem to think they have. Apart from John though, whose parents seem to be completely absent, Judy and Jim are simply behaving the way all teenagers do when they feel misunderstood.

Before John got to the mansion he had found an envelope from his father on his bedside table. He opens it and discovers a cheque (or money order I guess in those days) with just Support for Son written on it and an amount. That’s it, nothing else. This upsets him so much that he locates a gun hidden in his bedroom and rushes out of the house devastated and clearly on edge. His housekeeper tries to stop him but he is too quick. She subsequently gets on the phone to the police. We are then shown scenes of both Jim and Judy’s parents also on the phone to the authorities.


It doesn’t take long for the Kids to find the ‘rebellious’ three at the mansion. They had already spent a significant time at Jim’s parent’s home harassing them by hanging a live chicken at their front door and calling them from the surrounding trees to come out. These damn hooligans remind me of a very mild version of the violent pranksters in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971). They break in startling John who had fallen asleep. Jim and Judy had been confessing their love to one another in another room, and John is angry because he feels they abandoned him. In a rage and out of fear he shoots at one of the Kids wounding him. He runs off towards the Planetarium in the dark, and slowly the other kids all follow suit pursued by the police who have finally discovered the mansion.

Inside the Planetarium Jim and Judy sneak in after John and attempt to lure him out. Jim convinces him to hand over the gun for a few seconds and in those few seconds he takes away the bullets and hands the gun back to John. It doesn’t end the way we all want it to. The police think that John is still armed and he is shot coming out of the Observatory with Jim and Judy behind him. He dies on the pavement with a waling Jim and a devastated housekeeper crying over her surrogate son. In the end though John is surrounded by the people he believed to be his family. The family he created for himself because his real parents couldn’t do that for him.

Jim and Judy both go home arm in arm as two young people in love who have witnessed a lot of tragedy. The title of this film was adopted from Robert M. Linden’s 1944 book entitled; Rebel without a Cause: The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath, and even though the film makes no reference to this book and what it entails, you have to admit that the catchy title is perfect in representing the anxieties attached to the teenage rebel and everything the average adult considers irrational.


This film is devastating and beautiful, and the more you watch it the more you fall for these kids and realise that nothing has changed and nothing ever will. The world will always be a place where the tragedy of life is not always necessarily what the eye can see, but often just the secrets we keep that never get spoken of and die with us. In 1955 James Dean (Jim) died in a fatal car accident at the age of 24, and in 1981 Natalie Wood (Judy) drowned in strange and suspicious circumstances at 43. Rebel will remain one of those films that though not a complete masterpiece is still a great film that embodies the notion of immortality as a fallacy, and an unfortunate epidemic found mostly in the very young. It is a film about the frustration of being young, the hypocrisy of having time, and the idiocy of wasting that time and tempting fate. But without it all, have you even lived?

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