“If I had one day when I didn’t have to be all confused and I didn’t have to feel that I was ashamed of everything. If I felt that I belonged someplace. You know?”
There are a handful of films in Hollywood history that have stories as compelling if not more so than the story the film itself tells. I don’t know if there has ever been a film about the making of Rebel Without A Cause. There have certainly been several books, but this is one of those classic films which is surrounded by so many legends, some of them urban myths, but so many of them were true that I find it rather difficult to watch the film on its own terms. With Warner’s 100th anniversary celebration of 100 classic films, I had a nice chance to revisit the classic motion picture, and this time I tried my best to watch it without all of the noise that goes along with it. That wasn’t easy, but I think I’ve now seen the film for itself more now than I ever did before. It was a groundbreaking film with an incredible cast that broke so many taboos of the time that you get the idea someone wasn’t really paying attention to what was going on on the screen. It’s as compelling today as it was then, and maybe more so with all of the baggage. The truth is I’ve never been able to watch Rebel Without A Cause the same way twice. Now I can try as often as I like with a nearly flawless print finally in UHD Blu-ray and in 4K. Warner Brothers is having a birthday, and I’ve been unwrapping all of the presents.
“What can you do when you have to be a man?”
The themes of juvenile delinquency were quite a huge concern in the 1950’s. Gangs were on the rise, and “experts” were looking for various places to put the blame, including comic books. But Rebel Without A Cause hit the target squarely. Jim Stark (Dean) is starving for attention from his parents, particularly his father, played by Gilligan’s Island’s Jim Backus, who is dominated in the Stark household by Jim’s mother, played by Ann Doran. The result is confusion, and Jim doesn’t feel like he fits anywhere in “polite” society and feels betrayed by both his family and the “system” In short, he doesn’t feel connected to anyone or anything. He tries to find that connection with the local gang of youths, and it leads to tragedy when he agrees to a game of “Chickee-Run”. It’s basically like chicken, except the cars don’t race toward each other. They both race toward a cliff that plunges quite a distance into the raging sea. The first one to bail out of his car is the loser. Jim bails, but his opponent Buzz (Allen) gets his jacket sleeve caught on the door handle and ends up going over the cliff. His friends sort of blame Jim for the tragic accident, and once again he finds himself on the outside. What results is the film’s central story and theme.
He’s comforted by Judy, played by Natalie Wood, who was the “starter girl” for the ill-fated contest. She’s also looking for some kind of a family. They are joined by yet another outsider who is betrayed by others. He’s the younger Plato, played by Sal Mineo. He becomes a kind of surrogate son to this odd couple as they act out this fantasy. They end up in a derelict mansion where they can live the fantasy without intrusion, or so they believe. There’s an interesting scene where they talk about children, and Jim remarks that they should be drowned like puppies. What’s interesting here is that he does it in a near-perfect Mr. Magoo voice that Dean was taught on set by Mr. Magoo himself, Jim Backus. Buzz’s friends are still out to get Jim, and it’s Plato who ends up being the dangerous “protector”. Of course, there’s a tragic end, with the film offering a glimpse of hope for Jim in his father’s actions in that final moment of the film.
These are indeed tragic characters, but it turns out they were each played by actors who would find their lives ended in violence and youth. James Dean would never see his final two films hit the box office. He was already finished with Rebel Without A Cause and was just finishing Giant when he would die in an infamous car crash. Rebel Without A Cause would open a month after his death with a studio nervous about showing respect to him and his fans. They had also been watching the results of The Blackboard Jungle, because they weren’t sure how audiences would react to the material. Sal Mineo was only 37 years old when in 1976 he was stabbed to death by a homeless man on his way to his apartment. His final film would be Escape From The Planet Of The Apes where he played Professor Milo, a chimp sent to present day with Cornelius and Zira. It was a short part with only a couple of lines of dialog. Natalie Wood would drown under suspicious circumstances while out on a night cruise with husband Robert Wagner and several celebrity friends. No one really knows exactly how it happened, and the investigation is officially still open today. She was only 43.
The film is based on a novel by Robert Lindner Rebel Without A Cause: The Hypnoanalysis Of A Criminal Psychopath. Director Nicholas Ray took a stab at a treatment but ended up bringing in screenwriter Irving Shulman to really work out the adaptation. There were early talks with Marlon Brando, who even screen tested for the role in 1947, but they fell apart, and the lead eventually went to James Dean, who many accuse not without some reason of doing his best Brando imitation. The truth is Dean had the same kind of nuances, and it’s clear he looked up to Brando, and had he lived the two would have likely been rivals for film parts. At first this was going to be a low-budget black & white film, but with Dean’s sudden fame, Ray pushed for a bigger production budget and color. He got color, but most of the bigger budget came out of actor salaries and action scenes. There were going to be more knife fights in the film, but much of it was cut to support Cinescope and color. Some of the original black & white footage can be seen as deleted scenes on the release. All black & white scenes were re-shot. One of the biggest losses was the opening scene, which originally featured Stark getting stomped. Instead the film picks up with Dean already beaten and crawling on the street playing with one of those apes with cymbals. It’s a powerful opening completely adlibbed by Dean, and it’s hard to know how the stomping would have played out.
Look for many faces that would become better known later. Nick Adams is in the background as one of the gang members. Get Smart fans will recognize the police chief. played by Edward Platt. who was the Chief on Get Smart. Star Trek fans will notice Mr. Atoz Ian Wolfe, and this was the first film for Dennis Hopper. Hopper was almost removed from the film, and his lines were indeed cut when both he and Nicholas Ray had brief affairs with Natalie Wood on the film. It led to well-documented tension between the three.
“You’re tearing me apart.”
Finally, Dean fans will find the film a bit haunting, as there are several elements that appear to foreshadow his death, from the chickee-run to a scene were Stark is pretty much talking about his own future death.
Rebel Without A Cause is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.55:1. The ultra-high-definition image presentation is arrived at with an HEVC codec at an average of 70 mbps. The film was shot on 35mm so is native 4K. There has also been extensive restoration here, and it shows. The odd aspect ratio was the then-new Cinescope process, which would later be modified to what we usually see in 2.35:1 now. It’s a bit odd, and that opening scene with Dean crawling on the street starts out looking a tad distorted. I’m sure there’s was some intent here, because it does indeed add to the disturbing nature of the film. The image presentation is tight. You get details that really show up in the performances. When Dean is expressing his angst, the facial close-ups are devastatingly emotional. There are bright enough colors from time to time, and that often shows up in costumes, where textures are really nice. The film does its best work with the HDR, not in the color reproduction, but in the darkness. Contrast and deep black levels allow these details to thrive even under the darkest conditions. The shadow detail is quite impressive. The cinematography here is brilliant to begin with, but a ton of respect is paid to Ray’s artistic choices in the care of this 4K restoration.
The Dolby Atmos audio presentation defaults to 5.1, which never gets aggressive or intrusive to the original mono presentation. The dialog is what is served best here, and a little added depth gives it just enough boost without ruining things for the purists. Honestly, you can listen to this back in mono, and you really won’t notice much of a change. And if you want it, the original mix is available here.
The extras all from the earlier release.
Warner Brothers has had its share of bad press of late. The Discovery merger has caused issues, and there’s plenty going on with stuff being deleted from the streaming service to shake-up of the DC Universe. One effort that is being made should be getting more attention. They are bringing many of their true classics out and performing impressive restorations and getting them out to us on 4K. Let me tell you something. Yes, streaming has tons of advantages, but I promise you that you won’t find a better picture and audio than you find here. Streaming just can’t deliver this kind of quality … at least not yet. Some of these films go way back, and the youth who watch stuff on their phones don’t always appreciate the past. Call me an old man, but I’m always going to have room on my shelf for physical discs, particularly if they’re this well done. I guess you could call me old, old school. “Hey, they forgot to wind the sundial.”