Saturday, September 11, 2010

Rebel Without a Pause

One of the things I have in common with Mitch Berger, the hero of my mystery series, is that I'm a total old movie junkie.  I haven't seen every old movie ever made.  No one has, with the possible exception of Leonard Maltin.  But I've probably seen as many as your average ten people put together.

And so has Diana, who has been watching old movies with me for years and years.  This is a woman who I've dragged to see everything from La Dolce Vita to Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.  Hmm...that's not a good analogy.  Both of those movies qualify as high art.  I'll try to do better.

Anyway, the other day we got into this argument about Rebel Without A Cause.  I noticed it was going to be on that night on Turner Classic Movies.  I hadn't seen it in at least 20 years and wondered aloud how well it held up.

"I wouldn't know," Diana said.  "I've never seen it."

"Yes, you have," I insisted, which makes me the butthead of this story.

"No, I haven't," she insisted right back.

"Wait, wait...did you ever see East of Eden?"


"How about Giant? Did we ever see Giant together?"


"Then do you realize what that means? Those are the only three movies James Dean ever made.  You've never seen James Dean."

"That's correct.  I've never seen James Dean."

Not that she's ever been able to avoid him.  James Dean has been a perennial American cultural icon ever since he cracked up his Porsche back in 1955, the same year that Rebel Without a Cause was released. I can't recall a time in my life when James Dean hasn't been a hero to young people.  Decade after decade, he has always been the definition of cool defiance.  Mostly, that's about Rebel Without a Cause, which co-starred Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo and was directed by the great Nicholas Ray.

So we had to watch it.  Have you seen it lately? Like I said, I hadn't seen it for a long, long time.  And I have to tell you -- it's not the movie I remember at all.  I think I must have conflated it in my memory with The Wild One with Marlon Brando.  Just for starters, the movie's title, which is one of the greatest in Hollywood history, is totally misleading.  Dean's character, Jim Stark, is a sweet, conventional kid who yearns to be...conventional.  He wants to be socially accepted by the cool kids in his new high school.  He wants his father to stand up and be a father to him.  What he doesn't want to be -- what he isn't -- is a rebel.

Like I said, not the movie I remembered at all.  It's actually much more interesting. And way weirder.

Here's what I remembered about Rebel Without a Cause.  I remembered the famous, fatal game of chicken on the bluffs.  I remembered Dean's cool red leather jacket.  And I remembered the scene in the police station when he moans at his bickering parents, "You tearing me apart!"

What I didn't remember were the film's truly strange and disturbing touches -- especially considering that we're talking about 1955.  I didn't remember that the pivotal scene when Jim begs his father (Jim Backus) to define honor for him takes place when his dad has just spilled a dinner tray meant for Jim's mom all over the stairs.  Their entire heart-wrenching conversation about the meaning of manhood takes place with Backus wearing a frilly apron over his business suit.

I didn't remember that when Natalie Wood's character, Judy, tries to give her father (William Hopper) an affectionate kiss he slaps her right across the face.  Hard.  The man is a portrait of torment, clearly inflamed and enraged by the illicit lust he has begun to feel for his own nubile teenaged daughter.

I didn't remember the overtly homo-erotic goo-goo eyes Sal Mineo's Pluto keeps making at Jim throughout the movie.  In fact, Pluto's thing for Jim is so gay it's hard to believe they let it on screen in 1955.

Actually, it's hard to believe they let any of it on screen. Especially the undercurrent of utterly blasphemous anti-American nihilism that runs throughout the picture.  I didn't remember that either.  I didn't remember the scene when Jim first meets Judy:

Jim: "Is this where you live?"

Judy:  "Who lives?"

I didn't remember the conversation Jim has with Buzz (Corey Allen) just before their fatal car race:

Jim: "Why do we do this?"

Buzz:  "You gotta do something.  Don't you?"

I don't remember Jim saying these words:  "I don't know what to do anymore.  Except maybe die."

Honestly? Rebel Without a Cause is a reminder that life wasn't all a Technicolor dream in Fifties America.  There was a dark side.  There were people who were lost and confused.  There were people who didn't understand what the point of it all was.  This is a much, much more interesting and disturbing artifact from 1950s America than I realized.  And Dean's performance is totally amazing.  He practically jumps off of the screen at you.  Check it out if you haven't seen it in a while.

ps. Diana liked it a lot.  Especially his cool red leather jacket.  


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