Much like Bill Hicks or Heath Ledger, James Dean is a performer that has been shot into the stratosphere of praise after tragically passing away well before his time. His untimely death came at a point where he had only a few films under his belt, and Rebel Without a Cause is arguably the most definitive of the bunch. This astronomical praise that Dean has picked up for himself has seeped into the very films he starred in, and it’s why I believe Rebel Without a Cause is so beloved. A well-acted piece from the mid-1950s that frankly isn’t the classic everyone wholly believes it to be.
Leading man Dean plays Jim Stark, the troublemaking rebel audiences around the world have grown so fond of. A fine performance, not one that should really elicit anything more than wondering what would be next for such a promising young performer. His charming good looks and credible command of the screen and characters around him wane rather thin as the running time goes on, a performance dragged down by the docile nature of Dean’s acting abilities. He’s rather one-note for much of the film, a cocky hard-man who doesn’t receive any form of natural growth.
Somewhat recognisable faces are littered throughout the movie. Natalie Wood went on to star in The Searchers the year after Rebel Without a Cause, and she’s far more interesting in the John Wayne western classic than that of Nicholas Ray’s teen drama. The same goes for Sal Mineo, who doesn’t really do anything that memorable with his time on the screen. They’re cannon fodder for Dean’s leading performance, which, as commanding as it is, is ultimately boring and unconvincing. Staggering around drunkenly has never looked so ridiculously over-performed, I should know having spent a third of my life drunk.
If I hadn’t made it clear, Rebel Without a Cause is nowhere close to a bad film. Its technical merits overshadow that of the performances on hand, with Nicholas Ray’s direction being the pivotal swing that defers Rebel Without a Cause to a category of “watchable, but not that involving”. There’s nothing inherently bad about the film, far from it, but there aren’t any moments throughout that blew me away, nor did they make it feel like the experience was worthwhile in the slightest. One of the films that is inexplicably on every list of films that any budding film fan must see before they die, but after watching it, I’m not quite sure why that’s the case.