“You’re tearing me apart!”
So spat James Dean in the opening confrontation between drunken teenager, ineffectual father and overbearing mother at the police station in Rebel Without A Cause -- a single gut-wrenching line that captures perfectly the festering angst of juvenilia.
Nicolas Ray’s juvenile-delinquent melodrama seethes with pathos and psycho-sexual dysfunction. At its core, the central issue that drives the young characters -- Dean’s Jim Stark, Natalie Wood’s Judy, and Sal Mineo’s Plato -- to rebellion is a lack of strong father figures. Stark’s pathetic, emasculated old man (Jim Backus) disgusts his son. He even wears an apron and scurries to clean up a spilled mess so Jim’s pill-popping neurotic shrew of a mother won’t find out. Plato’s father went splitsville when Plato was still a baby. His mother globetrots, leaving Plato in the charge of a kindly black nurse (Marietta Canty). Creepiest parent of all, Judy’s father is obviously sexually attracted to his budding daughter, but so ashamed of himself that he’s taken to physically and mentally abusing Judy, calling her a “little tramp.”
(Interestingly enough, none of the parents are named. They are merely referred to in the film and the credits as “Jim’s father,” “Judy’s mother,” etc.)
Plato is drawn to Jim as a sort of surrogate father, constructing an elaborate fantasy around living as Jim’s son. Eventually, as more and more tragedy befalls them (all within a 24-hour period), Jim and Judy and Plato do form a “family,” the ideal unit that has thus far in life eluded them. Of course, the film builds to a famously tragic conclusion and Jim, Judy and Plato’s brief moments of a perfect life are torn apart, as well.
Rebel Without A Cause is beautifully photographed by Ernest Haller, bathed in rich, symbolic primary colors (a Nicolas Ray trademark.) Ray was nominated for a Best Director Oscar. The cast, especially James Dean, is brilliant.