The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent, Tony Farinella.
James Dean only made three major motion pictures in his short career: “East of Eden,” “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Giant.” Unfortunately, he tragically passed away in a car accident at only twenty-four-years old. He will always be remembered as one of the greatest “What ifs?” in Hollywood history. However, when people say the name James Dean or think of the man, they think of how naturally cool he was and how he was able to connect with a younger audience that was yearning to be seen and heard. Dean had the ability to speak their language and get across that intense emotion and pain on screen. Perhaps no film of his does a better job of this than “Rebel Without a Cause,” which still holds up incredibly well today.
The film is set in Los Angeles during the mid-1950’s, and as soon as the audience sees Jim Stark (James Dean) on screen, they know he is troubled and dealing with a lot of issues at home. It is one of the reasons he is arrested for public intoxication. His father, Frank (Jim Backus), is trying to connect with his son and be there for him, but Jim doesn’t exactly look up to him. He sees the way his father is afraid of his wife, Carol (Ann Doran), and how she bosses him around. Quite frankly, he doesn’t see his father as much of a man. While Jim is showered with material items, he is looking for something more out of his parents, and they are unable to provide that because they are always bickering with one another. His mother’s solution to their problems is to always move to a new city.
No matter where they live, Jim never truly feels like he fits in or is living an authentic life. There is a tremendous line in the film from Jim Stark which sums up his feelings on life, “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?” Even though he might partake in bad behavior, Ray (Edward Platt), a police officer in the juvenile unit, sees something in Jim and wants to help him and make sure he stays on the straight and narrow. Ray knows it’s not easy considering the life Jim has at home with his parents. On the surface, everything looks fine and dandy with his parents. Jim, however, sees through the façade his parents show to the world, and he is not buying it. As his friend Plato puts it, Jim is sincere.
There are two other kids he connects with through the juvenile ward in prison and at Dawson High, and they are Plato (Sal Mineo) and Judy (Natalie Wood). Plato has mental health problems and is without a family or friends. Jim is his friend, though, and Plato looks up to him as a father figure. Judy is dealing with problems at home as well, as her father is not too happy with the fact his sixteen-year-old daughter is growing up. He calls her a tramp and is disconnected from her. The three of them form a tight bond and kinship after some time. One of the other kids at Dawson High, Buzz (Corey Allen), is looking to make life a living hell for Jim, first by challenging him to a knife fight and then to a dangerous game with fatal consequences. This does not end well for Buzz, and it leaves Jim with some serious questions about what is the right thing to do in the aftermath of this accident. When he looks to his parents for advice and guidance, they give him answers which are not in line with Jim’s strict moral code of what is right and wrong.
Buzz’s gang is looking for revenge against Jim, and they are also concerned about the consequences they might face from the police. This whole ordeal brings Judy, Plato and Jim closer together, as they all share a common bond: feeling misunderstood from the world that has been presented to them by their families. Plato has been left behind. Yes, he gets money, but Plato would trade it all for the love of his parents instead of living with a caregiver. Judy wants her father to understand she is growing up and not his little girl anymore, and he is fighting this at every turn. With Jim, he has no respect for a father with no backbone and a controlling mother. Together, they have their own little family, and it is quite beautiful to see as an audience member. It reminds me of the old saying, “Friends are the family you choose.” This is a very powerful motion picture in so many ways, and it really struck a chord with me considering the lack of understanding and involvement my parents had in my own life growing up.
If you love acting as much as I do, you will love the acting of Dean and Wood as they are so tender and gentle together on screen. If Dean had lived a lengthy life, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that he would have been the next Marlon Brando. Even though he is playing someone who is cooler than the other side of the pillow, he is also vulnerable, sensitive and relatable without ever coming across as weak. He is simply human. Wood, in addition to being a real Hollywood beauty on screen, is tough but sweet, and she and Dean work perfectly together. There is a scene where they are talking about love, and the way she is rubbing her chin on his face is simply beautiful and movie magic.
As soon as I finished this movie, I couldn’t wait to sit down on my laptop and start writing this review. It was a film I had not seen in ages, so I felt like I was watching it for the first time. It is directed by one of my favorite directors, Nicholas Ray, whose films include “In a Lonely Place,” “Bigger Than Life” and “They Live by Night.” “Bigger Than Life,” in particular, is one of my favorite films of all time. It deals with the side effects of medication that was way ahead of its time. The films I’ve seen of Ray’s have all left me speechless as a viewer. I give a slight nod to “Rebel Without a Cause,” but “Bigger Than Life” is also a really, really good film which I recommend you check out as soon as possible as it is part of the Criterion Collection. With “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Bigger Than Life,” I almost feel like Nicholas Ray is speaking to me directly.
* * * * out of * * * *
4K Info: “Rebel Without a Cause” is released on a two-disc 4K/Blu-ray combo pack from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment. It is rated PG-13 for some violence and thematic elements and has a running time of 111 minutes. It also comes with a digital copy of the film.
Video Info: This is another fantastic release from Warner Brothers as they dig deeper into their rich history of classic films for their 100th year anniversary. The film is simply electric on Ultra HD, High Dynamic Range. There were scenes here and there which looked a little grainy, but they were cleaned up quickly and did not linger, so they were not massive issues. James Dean and Natalie Wood look GREAT on 4K, and the film itself is a stunner with rich, vivid colors which pop off the screen.
Audio Info: Thankfully, we are treated to a great Dolby Atmos track with this 4K release, and I am really happy about that because out of the three films I received to review (“Rebel Without a Case,” “Cool Hand Luke” and “The Maltese Falcon”), this film was my favorite, and it received the best audio track. All of the sizzling dialogue is on display here, and it really pops with the Dolby Atmos track. Subtitles are included in English, French and Spanish as well.
Commentary by Douglas L. Rathgeb
“James Dean Remembered” (1974 TV special)
“Rebel Without a Cause: Defiant Innocents” (featurette)
“Dennis Hopper: Memories from the Warner Lot” (featurette)
Should You Buy It?
HECK YES!! If you have never seen any of James Dean’s films, this is the place to start, without question. As a matter of fact, after watching “Rebel Without a Cause,” I bought “Giant” on Amazon, as I want to own as many of Dean’s films in 4K as possible. I am such a fan of actors who put so much of themselves and their histories into their films. I didn’t know a lot about Dean’s backstory, but I knew he used a lot of his childhood to tap into this performance. It shows in each and every scene as he is so raw, real and vulnerable for the camera. He likes the camera, and the camera likes him. This film perfectly captures the disconnect between teenagers and their parents during this era without ever being preachy or too on-the-nose. It hits all the right notes. The late, great Natalie Wood is also a movie star on screen. I am such a fan of this period of Hollywood where actors were taking chances and putting their blood, sweat and tears into their performances. The film comes with the previously released Blu-ray special features, so there is not anything new as far as documentaries on Dean. The Dolby Atmos track is a very nice touch and, despite a few rough patches, the 4K video transfer is just about perfect. It is a red-hot movie in 4K, and I loved getting to watch it in this format. This is a day-one purchase without any hesitation, whatsoever.
**Disclaimer** I received a copy of this film from Warner Brothers to review for free. The opinions and statements in the review are mine and mine alone.