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Rebel Without a Cause

March 13, 2011

Rachel’s review originally published January 11th 2011.
Updated to include Ally’s review March 13th 2011.

296. Rebel Without a Cause
Directed by Nicholas Ray
USA, 1955
IMDB | allmovie

Reviewed by Rachel
Second viewing


Troubled teenager Jim Stark (James Dean) and his family are new in town. They move every time Jim gets into trouble, making a new start in a new town rather than facing up to Jim’s problems.

On Jim’s first day at his new school, he meets two new friends: Plato (Sal Mineo) is a troubled young man who has been virtually abandoned by his parents and is desperate for a father figure, and Judy (Natalie Wood) is a nice but rebellious young girl who is confused by her father’s recent lack of affection towards her.

When a chickee run* between Jim and local bad boy Buzz ends in tragedy, the three friends find comfort in each other’s company as they try to deal with their increasing feelings of alienation.

*Two people drive cars towards a cliff, the first person to jump out is a “chicken.”

Essential Scene:

In the film’s first scenes, Jim has been arrested, having being found sleeping on the street after a drinking binge. His parents arrive at the police station and talk to Detective Ray Fremick. We see the dynamics of the family and why Jim is rebelling.

[Jim hums “Ride of the Valkyries”]

Frank Stark: I don’t see what’s so bad about taking a little drink.

Det. Ray Fremick: You don’t?

Frank Stark: No, no I definitely don’t–

Det. Ray Fremick: He’s a minor, Mr Stark, and it looks to me like he’s had more than “a little drink.”

Mrs. Stark: [To Jim] Don’t hum, dear.

Frank Stark: I cut loose pretty good in my day, too.

Mrs. Stark: Oh really, Frank? When was that?

Frank Stark: Can’t you wait until we get home?

Det. Ray Fremick: How about you, Jim? Got anything to say for yourself? [Jim shakes his head drunkenly] Not interested, huh?

Mrs. Stark: Can’t you answer? What’s the matter with you anyhow?

Frank Stark: He’s just loaded, honey.

Mrs. Stark: I was talking to Jim.

Frank Stark: Well I’d, er, like to just explain. You see, we just moved here you understand, and the kid hasn’t got any friends.

Jim: Tell him why we moved here.

Frank Stark: Will you hold it, Jim?

Jim: Tell the man why we moved here.

Frank Stark: Will you hold it!

Jim: You can’t protect me.

Frank Stark: Do you mind if I try? Do you have to slam the door in my face? I try to get to him, and what happens? Don’t I buy you everything you want? A bicycle? You get a bicycle, a car..

Jim: You buy me many things. [To Fremick] He buys me many things.

Frank Stark: Not just buying! We give you love and affection, don’t we? Then what is it? Is it because we went to that party? You know what kind of drunken brawls those parties turn into! It’s not a place for kids!

Mrs. Stark: A minute ago you said you didn’t care if he drinks.

Frank’s Mother: He said a “little” drink.

Jim: [yelling] You’re tearing me apart!!

Mrs. Stark: What?

Jim: You! You say one thing, he says another and everybody changes back again!

Mrs. Stark: That’s a fine way to behave!

Frank’s Mother: [Looking at Mrs. Stark] Well, you know who he takes after.

Jim wails in disbelief and buries his face in his jacket.


When I was 15 years old, a boy who sat in front of me in class proudly showed me his new flick knife. It was a beautiful knife, with intricate mother-of-pearl on the handle. But rather than being impressed, I just felt numb and a little frightened. He, obviously, bought it purely to be armed, and he would have used this knife in a fight if he had to. And why? Because of honour. The delusion that if you don’t fight with a weapon, you’re not a man.

When I saw Rebel Without a Cause, I realised these sinister aspects of teenage life haven’t changed at all.

Rebel is shown from the teenager’s point of view and it highlights the world that teenagers face, combined with the difficulty the parents and other adults face when trying to understand it. When Jim Stark is confronted by the gang, he faces a crisis of both conscience and manhood — and he will have to face these kids every day, no matter what choice he makes.

No matter how ridiculous these situations seem to adults, the outcomes are painfully real. These problems have not gone away, and Rebel is impressive in its honest portrayal of intelligent but troubled youth and the inability of parents to connect with them.

Another point of interest for me was James Dean. I was curious as to whether this cultural icon was indeed the amazing actor he is said to be. Well, I must say, he was bloody brilliant. I get the sense that the complex and quietly spoken Jim wasn’t too far removed from Dean himself, and I find that intriguing. More, please!

Reviewed by Ally
Second viewing

Essential Scene:

Plato, Jim and Judy are hiding in an abandoned mansion. Enjoying the privacy and freedom, they begin to play like children. Plato takes on the role of estate agent, carrying a candlestick and showing Jim and Judy around the mansion. As they descend the staircase, they discuss finances, lampooning their parents.

Jim: Would you like to rent it, or are you more in the mood to buy, dear?

Judy: You decide, darling.

Jim: Oh yes, yes.

Judy: Remember our budget.

Plato: Oh don’t give it a thought. It’s, uh, only three million dollars a month.

Jim: What?!

Judy: Oh we can manage that. I’ll scrimp and I’ll save and I’ll work my fingers to the bone!

Jim: [to Plato] You see, we’re newlyweds.

Judy: Yes. Oh, there’s just one thing. What about…

Plato: Children? Right this way.

Plato leads them to the garden.

Plato: See, we really don’t encourage them. They’re so noisy and troublesome, don’t you agree?

Judy: Oh yes yes, and so terribly annoying when they cry. Oh yes, I don’t know what to do when they cry, do you dear?

Jim: [imitating Mr. Magoo] Drown them like puppies!

They come to the empty swimming pool.

Plato: As you see, the nursery’s far away from the rest of the house.

Jim: Hey, you forgot to wind your sundial!

Plato: [climbing into the pool] And if you have children, you’ll find that this is a wonderful arrangement. They can carry on and you’ll never even notice.

Jim: Oh, sunken nursery!

As the camera looks down from on high, the friends all climb down into the empty pool, their voices echoing eerily.

Plato: In fact, if you lock them in, you’ll never have to see them again.

Jim: Much less talk to them.

Judy: [incredulously] Talk to them? Heavens!

Jim: Nobody talks to children.

Judy: No, they just tell them!


At their best, I respond to Nicholas Ray’s films unlike any others. Like great music, they are imbued with a certain electricity. His use of expressionistic lighting, bold colours and music perfectly portrays the inner turmoil of his troubled characters, and there is a subversive thrill to the ideas he put across under the old Hollywood production code — Plato’s implicit crush on Jim, for example. It all comes together to make a potentially melodramatic story powerful and exciting, rather than dreary.

There was theatre (Griffith), poetry (Murnau), painting (Rossellini), dance (Eisenstein), music (Renoir). Henceforth there is cinema. And the cinema is Nicholas Ray.

~ Jean-Luc Godard

Fascinating Fact: The empty swimming pool featured in my chosen scene is the very same one built for the iconic scene in Sunset Boulevard.

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