Before watching Rebel Without a Cause for my post-World War II American Studies class, I had preconceived ideas that the narrative would center around recklessness, putting a middle finger up to “the man” and perhaps a motorbike gang (of which James Dean was the front man). I think this preconception is fairly justified: The film’s ad campaigns and posters feature a rugged looking James Dean in his iconic red windbreaker, perfectly-styled hair that looks fresh from a brawl, and a stare that doesn’t care about anything but being “cool.”So when I actually watched the film, I was both surprised and confused at how the narrative contradicted the assumptions I had made based on the film’s public perception. Familial breakdown, generational difference, and the effects of mental illness are far more significant thematic elements in Nicholas Ray’s film than recklessness or disorder.
From the offset, Jim Stark (James Dean) expresses bitter distaste towards his familial structure: “Nobody talks to children.” “You’re tearing me apart!” One prime example of this loathing is depicted the film’s attention to style and its connotations. It’s the moment when Jim comes upstairs to find his father, dressed in an apron – a symbol of 1950s feminine domesticity – cleaning up the mess that he made from dropping his wife’s dinner on the floor. Jim’s immediate response to this image is incessant laughter and the demand: “Let her see it.” The camera cuts to a medium close-up of Frank Stark on all fours, visually placed behind the bars of a banister. The image is evocative of both Frank and Jim’s entrapment under the dominating, smothering, and controlling female figure of the 1950s mother. This image alludes to the emasculation of Jim’s father, which is hinted at throughout the film.
As a result of this smothering family structure that is “tearing” Jim apart, he moulds and reconstructs his own, new family: Jim, Judy and Plato. Perhaps it is this idea that brands Jim a rebel – he takes issue with the socially projected view of a perfect family, so he distorts it and makes it his own. In this still, we see Jim with his tough-guy aesthetic leaning on the popular Judy. Simultaneously, we see Plato, their troubled “son” leaning on Jim. All three components of this manufactured family have either rejected or been rejected from their original family sphere. Thus they join together to create something new. Maybe it is this regeneration which associates Rebel Without a Cause with the birth of the teenager.