Yesterday I had the great pleasure of watching Nicholas Ray’s 1955 classic, Rebel Without a Cause. It was a fairly nice 35mm print presented at the TIFF Bell Lightbox (there is another screening on Tuesday, Nov. 8 and if you life in Toronto I highly recommend going). I had never seen the film before, but obviously the James Dean is iconic in the film, as is his distinctive red jacket. I had no idea what the story entailed, but having seen Bigger Than Life, another Nicholas Ray film, I knew to expect a healthy dose of melodrama and beautiful cinematography. Rebel Without a Cause did not disappoint. It’s a beautiful film, and it showcases one of the best performances I have ever seen in film.
Going into the film I knew all about James Dean’s method acting training, and I knew that he has been held up as one of the shining examples of that method alongside Marlon Brando. Yet I found myself completely unprepared for just how good James Dean was. His performance in Rebel Without a Cause is so good that he somehow manages to make every other actor in the movie look bad while simultaneously raising them up and making the whole film better as a result. Without Dean, the film would play as great melodrama, but by bringing an unparalleled sense of naturalism through his acting, Dean’s performance makes that melodrama so much more personal and powerful.
I will usually be first in line to defend melodrama. It gets a bad rap, but that isn’t fair at all. In an age that prizes naturalism and gritty realism, it’s easy to forget that traditional drama is defined by heightened stakes and heightened emotions. Melodrama, through its heightened qualities, lends itself to more overtly intense power. But even I can admit that there are often limitations to straight melodrama. Such stories often feel at a bit of a remove. They are viscerally effective and moving, but they also feel disconnected from our own lives. Their power rests in the way they make us feel from moment to moment, often without a serious lasting effect once the story is over. The best melodramas in film do manage to be memorable, and that memory might still move us, but it’s still hard to take away something personal from a film like Bigger Than Life unless you’ve been in such a situation, and even then it probably just comes off as over-the-top.
Rebel Without a Cause overcomes this limitation, partly in the writing, but almost entirely through James Dean’s amazing acting. Where everyone else in the film is playing at a more typical classical Hollywood style, with bigger gestures and more theatrical acting, Dean plays it natural. He makes his character, Jim Stark, feel like a real human being rather than a character in a film. He outclasses every single actor he has a scene with. It’s actually ridiculous. There are seasoned actors in the film and he makes mincemeat out of them. I don’t usually consider the newer, more naturalistic styles of acting to be objectively better than the classical styles, but James Dean makes a good case for exactly that in Rebel Without a Cause.
Amazingly, while he stands there all handsome and making all the other actors look bad, he also makes them look good. That may sound contradictory, and it is, but it’s also true. I suppose a more accurate way of describing the effect is to say that he makes the other acting in the film look worse by comparison while also making their characters more involving simply because of how he interacts with them.
Sal Mineo, for example, is quite excellent in his role as Plato, the kid who’s taken a liking to Jim. He’s a little unhinged, but also sad and sympathetic. James Dean stands next to him and suddenly that performance seems a tad too theatrical, too silly. Except that it also magically doesn’t. You see, Dean is so great in his role that it becomes easy to feel whatever he feels and consequently care about whatever and whoever he cares about. That includes Plato. That character is beautiful and tragic and we feel that tragedy in good part because Dean sells it to us so effortlessly. Dean does the same thing for Natalie Wood, who also delivers a great performance that is ultimately enhanced by Dean’s presence.
The same is also true of Jim’s relationship with his severely emasculated father, Frank. Nicholas Ray piles on the belittling imagery, most notable in a scene where Frank wears a frilly apron while picking dropped food off the floor. Jim Backus is quite good in the role, and his torment from his wife and mother-in-law can be felt quite plainly. But it is when he has scenes with James Dean that the character comes alive. Again, he comes across a tad too theatrical by comparison, but when Dean cries for him to stand up for himself, we inevitably cry as well. Such is the power of Dean’s performance. The empathy he demands is so strong as to extend even to the characters around him. It’s as masterful a performance as one could ever hope to see on screen.
Special mention must also be made of Nicholas Ray’s beautiful direction and Ernest Haller’s moody Cinemascope cinematography. Like Bigger Than Life, the colours in Rebel Without a Cause skew dark. Blacks, dark reds, dark blues. Everything is beautifully dark. The camera work is also magnificent. Grand, but intimate. There is one moment involving a dutch (tilted) angle that is easily the best I’ve ever seen. The shot starts off straight, but it suddenly tilts and the whole scene becomes incredibly tense. The shot itself might have felt too showy, but Nicholas Ray sets up such tricks with a camera move only a couple minutes earlier that flips from upside down to right side up, giving us Jim’s point of view as he lies on a couch.
Rebel Without a Cause is a dark tragedy, and an example of the best in American filmmaking during the 1950s. It’s high melodrama, delivered through the brilliant eyes of Nicholas Ray and humanized through an indelible performance from James Dean. It’s a film about what it means to be a man, and even more tenderly, it’s a film about creating your own family with the people who understand you. This was my first James Dean film, and I can’t wait to watch the other two. He was clearly an amazing talent, and it makes me sad now to realize that talent was so short-lived.
(Side-note: It was great to see the same mansion and pool that was featured in Sunset Blvd. featured in Rebel Without a Cause. Just another layer of awesome.)