“Rebel Without a Cause” began as a case history, written in 1944 by Dr. Robert Lindner. Originally intended as a vehicle for Marlon Brando, the property was shelved until Brando’s “The Wild One” (1953) opened floodgates for films about confused mixed-up teens. The film took on an eerie kind of fame when James Dean died in a car crash a month before its 1955 opening. And it became enormously influential at the time, a milestone in the creation of new ideas about young people. ‘It’s just an age where nothing fits’ says Natalie Woods’ character’s mother, setting the stage.
Jimmy Stark’s (Dean) parents are in the habit of moving him from town to town every time a challenge arises. Innocently enough, trouble encroaches yet again on his first day at school – as new acquaintances tease to find out who is who. His latest nemesis, the local gang leader Buzz (Corey Allen) and Jimmy actually like each other. This is established but they must carry through on a dare for the sake of appearances. It’s “a matter of honour” for Jimmy. He doesn’t want to be seen as “Chicken” – all that his father disturbingly embodies.
The film happens over 24 hours. In this scene Jimmy volleys between his upper-handed mother (Ann Doran), and his groveling weak-kneed dad (Jim Backus) searching for clues. He reasons with his father to stand up for him, and when that doesn’t happen, Jimmy storms off into the night to solve the dilemma himself.
“Rebel Without a Cause” acts as a classic eulogy of sorts, since so many of its cast members, James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo and Nick Adams ironically all died young.