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Film / Rebel Without a Cause

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Misfit best buddies, '50s style!

"You're tearing me apart!"
Jim Stark

Rebel Without a Cause is a 1955 teen drama film directed by Nicholas Ray in which James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo deal with Angst. Notably averts the Teens Are Monsters mindset of the '50s era.

Dean is Jim Stark, a Troubled, but Cute 17-year-old with a messed-up home life. His mother (Ann Doran) prefers to move whenever a problem comes up rather than confront it and his father (Jim Backus) is a Henpecked Husband who lets her do as she pleases. As a result, the Starks are constantly moving around and have just arrived in Los Angeles as the film opens. At his new High School, Jim befriends John "Plato" Crawford (Mineo), an Ambiguously Gay innocent. Jim immediately finds himself up against Buzz Gunderson (Corey Allen), the local Jerk Jock, but takes somewhat more kindly to Buzz's girlfriend Judy (Wood). Needless to say, she later becomes Jim's girlfriend. Most of the movie takes place on a night after a chicken race gone horribly wrong.

There is a "Rebel Without A Cause curse". The film's three main stars (Dean, Wood, and Mineo) all met tragic deaths at a young age; Dean died before the film even opened.note 

Provides Examples Of:

  • Actor Allusion:
    • In one scene, Jim Stark mutters at his father in a Mr. Magoo-like voice. His father was played by Mr. Magoo's voice actor, Jim Backus.
    • James Dean played Cal Trask in East of Eden. Both Cal and Jim act out due to desperation for love and approval from parents who don't know how to love them.
  • Adults Are Useless: Part of what draws Jim, Judy, and Plato together is their collectively completely useless parents.
    • Carol Stark is an overbearing nag who would rather move to a new town than confront the consequences of Jim's actions, while Frank is a Henpecked Husband who is too afraid of his wife and mother-in-law to stand up to them, even when Jim pleads with him to stand up to Carol's insistence that they deal with Buzz's death by moving again.
    • Judy's father can't cope with his daughter growing into adolescence, and actually slaps her when she tries to kiss him as a gesture of filial affection. Her mother does nothing to intervene.
    • Plato was only a toddler when his parents divorced, and he hasn't seen his father in years (although he does still pay child support), while his mother regularly goes away on long trips, leaving Plato in the care of a maid.
  • After Action Patch Up: Jim's father attempts to patch up his knife-fight wounds but Jim runs out quickly again.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Jim is portrayed as a violent and menacing, if not downright villainous, figure in the promotional posters, no doubt to capitalize on this trope. However, Subverted in the film: he's actually a sensitive, kindhearted boy; Judy becomes attracted to him because he's kind to her. Her previous boyfriend was the gang leader Buzz.
  • All There in the Script: According to the script, Judy's little brother who's only in scenes involving the family, is named Beau.
  • Alphabetical Theme Naming: All three of the lead teenage protagonists have names that start with the letter J. (Jim, Judy, and John; "Plato" is actually John's nickname, so the trope still applies.)
  • Ambiguously Gay: Famously with Plato towards Jim, whose interest looks like a Precocious Crush. At one point he's clearly interested in the idea of spending a night with Jim. Word of God is that Nicholas Ray told Sal Mineo to look at James Dean "the same way Natalie does" — and there was even a kiss between them scripted.
  • Berserk Button: You shouldn't have called Jim 'chicken.'
  • Bittersweet Ending: Plato is dead, but Jim's dad vows to be a stronger dad from now on, and Jim's parents seem to be on the road to being better parents.
  • Blatant Lies: Jim responds to his grandmother's line that everything will be fine with...
    "Now, granny, if you tell any more lies like that, you're gonna turn to stone."
  • Bribe Backfire: Early in the film, after Jim gets hauled in for underage drunkenness, his dad tries to smooth things over with Detective Fremick by offering him cigars. The detective rather coldly declines.
  • Bring My Red Jacket: Jim wears the iconic red jacket for most of the film, but lends it to Plato shortly before the latter is killed. When Jim's father arrives on the scene, he recognizes the jacket and thinks it's his son who's been shot.
  • Bury Your Gays: Being only implied to be gay doesn't protect Plato from this trope.
  • Can't Get in Trouble for Nuthin': To Jim's consternation, his parents never punish him for stepping out of line. Instead, they wind up using it as something to argue with each other over, and attempt to smooth over the consequences without actually requiring anyone to take any responsibility. Even when "stepping out of line" means "getting a classmate killed''.
  • Carload of Cool Kids: Judy gets into a convertible car full of teenagers. Then the teenagers heckle Jim, who is a newcomer.
  • Central Theme: The need for grown ups to grow up. The realization that adults don't always have the answers to the larger questions in your life, and the need to be your own man without completely falling into cynicism.
  • Character Development: Judy starts the film as kind of arrogant while she's the girlfriend of gang leader Buzz Gunderson (as a way of coping with her relationship with her father) whose gang whose often tease Jim. Eventually, Buzz ends up getting killed, and ends up getting closer to Jim as a result; Buzz's lack of peer pressure allows her to gives up her cold demeanor to become more sincere, genuine, open to other people's thoughts and overall friendly. She even apologizes for making fun of him earlier that day.
  • Chewing the Scenery: Jim. "You're tearing me apart!"; "I got the bullets!" Everyone else occasionally chips in as well. Of note is Judy's reaction when the phone rings.
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience: Red is a reoccuring color throughout the movie. Jim's iconic red jacket and Judy's red lipstick both represent their disconnection with society and lack of strong role models. There's even a subtle case with Buzz right before the game of chicken that leads to his death. Before they do it, Jim asks Buzz something the lines of "Why are we doing this?" and Buzz, responding with something along the lines of "What else is there to do?" opens his jacket up while shrugging, and you can see the inside is red showing they aren't so different.
  • Cool Car: Jim drives a 1949 Mercury. This movie single-handedly made the '49 Merc a Cool Car rather than the rapidly depreciating, out-of-style old barge it had been before, much as Initial D did for the mid-80s Toyota Corolla coupes.
  • Cool Loser: James Dean is a high school outcast.
  • Cool People Rebel Against Authority: Jim can be counted on to do the opposite of anything an adult says. Now, if his putz of a father was strong enough to fend off his wife, his son might be capable of being a respectable member of adult society — but not in this lifetime.
  • Covers Always Lie: Jim is portrayed as a violent and menacing, if not downright villainous, figure in the promotional posters, no doubt to capitalize on the fact that All Girls Want Bad Boys. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. See Nice Guy for more details.
  • Creator Cameo: Nicholas Ray is the doctor who appears at the end.
  • Cymbal-Banging Monkey: Jim is seen playing with one during the opening credits.
  • Deconstruction: Possibly of teen delinquency films of The '50s and also the generation gap between the "Greatest Generation" and the "Baby Boom", though neither of the terms existed at the time. Showing that children who live under the shadow of the atomic bomb and a formless universe and the lack of a great cause to fight war, no longer quite connect to their parents' generation. (Though really, Jim's generation should be the "Silent Generation," who experienced WWII in childhood.)
  • Delinquents: The leads aren't this, but rather just misunderstood by their parents and struggling for their own identity. The gang, meanwhile, are a straighter example, although Buzz gets a line that says they do what they do mainly because they're bored.
  • Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life: Rebel was one of the few mainstream American films to explore existential angst among adolescents growing up in a time where a class field trip assures them that the universe is vast and empty, Earth is just a tiny part of this unfathomable vastness, and if and when the world ends, it will not be missed in the wider cosmos, Adults Are Useless and children more or less have to turn to each other to form their own community, first in self-destructive gang fights, and later a community of friends that still end up falling apart because of their own confusion and jealousy.
    Jim Stark: If only I had one day in my life where I didn't feel confused, where I felt like I belonged.
  • Dysfunction Junction: American families are dysfunctional, teenage gangs are dysfunctional, and the alternative idea of a community of friends where Jim, Judy, and Plato briefly engage for a few hours falls apart in confusion and mayhem because Humans Are Flawed. Rebel Without A Cause anticipated both The '60s and the end of the sixties.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Jim, Judy, and Plato are all hauled in by the cops at the same time, with their interviews revealing their problems at home.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: The whole film takes place over 24 hours. The opening scene in the police station takes place around 3:00 a.m. The ending scene takes place around 3:00 a.m. the next morning.
  • Foreshadowing: In the opening sequence in the police station, Jim notices Plato shivering and offers him his sport coat. In the climactic sequence in the planetarium, Jim once again notices Plato shivering and offers him his red windbreaker, setting up the moment when Plato is shot as he runs out with a gun only Jim knows is not loaded, and Jim's parents see his coat and think Jim is the one who was shot.
  • Friendly Enemy: Buzz seems like a typical high school bully archetype and gets into a knife fight with Jim shortly after meeting him. But later on, he admits he actually admires Jim; he just acts like a budding sociopath because, well, you've got to do something.
  • Game of Chicken: Between Buzz and Jim. The game (called "chickie run") is to drive towards the edge of a cliff and see who will jump out first.
  • Genre Deconstruction: The film deconstructs Teens Are Monsters films so prevalent in the 50's. The teens get into trouble seemingly out of boredom, peer-pressure, outlet for emotional need and engage in fairly shallow friendships and relationships.
  • Greaser Delinquents: Buzz provides the straightest example with his attire and haircut ticking all the boxes (leather jacket, greased hair), but it's ultimately James Dean who has come to embody the Greaser image in popular consciousness, despite Jim not being part of a gang and his iconic red jacket not being made of leather.
  • Henpecked Husband: Mr. Frank Stark, Jim's dad. His being unable to stand up to his wife is a significant character point for their kid. In one scene, he even wears an apron. In the Fifties.
  • Iconic Outfit: Jim's red windbreaker with a white t-shirt and jeans.
  • In Name Only: Other than the title, the film nothing to do with the 1944 nonfiction book Rebel Without a Cause: The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath. The producers liked the title and took nothing else.
  • Insignificant Little Blue Planet: Jim's class goes takes a field trip to a planetarium, where they listen to a lecture about how small and unimportant Earth is in the grand scheme of things.
    In all the immensity of our universe and the galaxies beyond, the earth will not be missed. Through the infinite reaches of space, the problems of man seem trivial and naïve indeed, and man existing alone seems himself an episode of little consequence.
  • Improvised Weapon: John briefly uses a hose as a whip when surrounded by bullies in the abandoned mansion's pool.
  • Kick The Son Of A Bitch: The kid that Plato shoots in the mansion. Sure, he was shot in the chest. He was also trying to help corner and possibly kill Plato and/or Jim.
  • Knife Fight: Between Buzz and Jim. One of the earliest depictions, at least in a delinquent youth context.
  • Lap Pillow: Jim and Judy, as seen in the above screenshot.
  • Masculine Girl, Feminine Boy: Jim's parents are an adult version.
  • Men Don't Cry: Averted in the ending. Jim bursts into tears in his father's arms after Plato is shot by the cops.
  • Natural End of Time: The Planetarium sequence is entirely filled with this. The light show and cold scientist voice assures the young audience that the universe is vast and empty and human lives and civilization is meaningless in the long run.
    Plato: Tell me Jim, will the end of the world come at night time?
    Jim Stark: No, at dawn.
  • Nice Guy: In stark contrast to how to promotions made him out to be, Jim is a decent, gentle, sensitive, and kindhearted boy who unhesitatingly befriends and stands up for the meek Plato on his first day of school, takes care of people who have shown him kindness, and has enough of a conscience left that he practically leapt to take responsibility for the death of his drag-race opponent... though still narcissistic enough to expect to cut to the front of the line at the precinct.
  • No Antagonist: The film doesn't really have a true antagonistic character, as it's mainly about the main trio's parental issues and connection with each other. Even the parents are fairly decent people, even if they are very flawed.
  • Nobody Calls Me "Chicken"!: Calling Jim chicken is his guaranteed Berserk Button.
  • No Name Given: Judy's last name is not revealed.
  • Parental Abandonment: Plato's father left when he was still an infant, and his mother is always going on out of town trips, leaving him in a black housekeeper's care.
  • Parental Incest: Subverted with Judy and her father, in that the attempts to deny even the appearance of incest destroy the normal expressions of affection. He refuses to show affection for Judy, stating that she's "getting too old for that kind of stuff," and when she kisses him, he slaps her.
  • Parental Neglect: Jim's parents seem to spend a lot of time at parties. Even when Jim starts acting out, they don't really pay any attention to him, but just start arguing with each other over whose fault it is.
  • Parental Substitute: Jim tells Judy that Plato would like them to be like his mother and father.
  • Police Are Useless: Played with. Detective Ray Fremick appears to be the Only Sane Man at the start, and treats the delinquent teens with respect. Jim even goes to try and report Buzz's death to him for this reason, but he is out on a call, and the policemen who are at the station don't know where he is or when he'll be back. The police who show up at the planetarium later in the film, however, make things worse by aiming their spotlights at Plato, causing him to panic and run out. Not knowing that his gun is unloaded, they fatally shoot him.
  • Pop the Tires: Buzz does it to Jim's car with a knife to provoke Jim. This eventually leads to a Knife Fight.
  • Pretty in Mink: Jim's mother and grandmother wear mink wraps, showing, if nothing else, that money isn't one of the problems with their family.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Detective Ray Fremick is the only adult authority figure in the film who empathizes with the teenage delinquents and tries to reach out to them, which is why Jim specifically asks for him when he goes to report Buzz's death. During the climax, he shows up at the planetarium to de-escalate the situation, but unfortunately cannot prevent Plato from being killed by his less level-headed colleagues.
  • Revised Ending: An alternative ending was shot in which Plato falls from the tower of the planetarium.
  • Sensitive Guy and Manly Man: Plato and Jim.
  • Shirtless Scene: Jim gets one while he's changing after his knife fight.
  • Shoot the Dog: In his first appearance, Plato is at the police station for literally shooting puppies.
  • Sleeping Single: Judy's parents, as you can see here.
  • The Smurfette Principle: Judy is the only lead character to be female.
  • Spiritual Successor: Ray's follow-up film, Bigger Than Life, is set in Stepford Suburbia but unlike Rebel deals with the parents, specifically the protagonist is a school teacher (whereas here the protagonists are school students).
  • Suicide by Cop: Plato is shot by the police as he runs toward them with a gun with no bullets.
  • Teens Are Monsters: But only because there are no adults to properly guide them. Or as the film shows, the teenagers have unrealistic expectations about their parents which they cannot really fulfill, and the parents are forced to embody that unrealistic concept because of the generation gap. It's about people realizing that Humans Are Flawed.
  • Teens Are Short: Most teens are played by shorter-than-average actors, such as 5'7" James Dean and Dennis Hopper, 5'5" Sal Mineo and 5'1" Natalie Wood. Corey Allen at 5'10" is an exception, but he's not especially tall either.
  • Tender Tears: Jim weeping for the death of Plato.
  • Threesome Subtext: Sort of the whole idea of Jim + Plato + Judy they're sort of a weird blend of a threesome and a family unit.
  • Token Trio: The three leads.
  • Troubled, but Cute: Jim opens the film getting hauled into the police station for underage drinking, and he freely participates in gang-related activities. But most of his problems stem from trouble at home, and he's a kind-hearted guy underneath it all. The bulk of the conflict comes from him ducking gang members because he wants to go to the authorities about Buzz's death.
  • Troubled Teen: The film is about three misfit teens with troubled home lives who find solace in each other. Could be the Trope Codifier on account of how old and influential it is.
  • True Companions: Jim, Judy, and Plato, as seen in the above screen shot.
  • Unbuilt Trope: This film was critical of the Teens Are Monsters trope right as it took form in The '50s. It's also a good deal more serious than the teenage movies that followed, dealing with repressed homosexuality, gun violence, the sense of growing up with the realization that Earth is a meaningless speck in the universe, and for its tackling of existentialist themes.
    Roger Ebert: Like Hamlet's disgust at his mother's betrayal of his father, Jim's feelings mask a deeper malaise, a feeling that life is a pointless choice between being and not being. In France at the time, that was called existentialism, but in Jim's Los Angeles, rebels were not so articulate. The first time Jim talks with Judy (Natalie Wood), the girl next door, she's ready for him. "You live here, don't you?" he says. "Who lives?" she says.
  • Worthy Opponent: Deliberately parodied in this legendary exchange between Buzz and Jim:
    Buzz: I like you.
    Jim: Then why are we doing this?
    Buzz: You've got to do something.
  • You Must Be Cold: Jim offers his jacket to Plato. A rare male-male example of this trope, but with the usual romantic vibes intact.
  • Youth Is Wasted on the Dumb: The game of chicken.