Dean, Wood, Mineo
Rebel’s Triangle

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Directed by Nicholas Ray, Rebel Without a Cause (1955) was originally budgeted by Warner Brothers as a black-and-white B movie. James Dean had starred in East of Eden  (1955) for director Elia Kazan but was still not well-known. Child star Natalie Wood hadn’t established herself as a serious actress. The rest of the cast consisted of up and comers like Dennis Hopper and veteran character actors. Still, when the studio saw the black-and-white rushes, they decided on the unusual measure to switch the production to color and re-shoot scenes already filmed. [One theory on why that happened was because the CinemaScope contract mandated color, another was that the studio feared that it would look too much like Blackboard Jungle (1955)]

2739487230_da5ac03905_bI first saw Rebel Without a Cause in the early 1960s, on a black-and-white television, when it played on a local Los Angeles station. After seeing it in its wide-screen, Technicolor glory, it became impossible to imagine it any other way. It was Ray’s first time filming in CinemaScope and he was at first concerned with how he, with veteran cinematographer Ernest Haller [Mildred Pierce (1945)], was going to fill the screen.

In the opening scene, Dean’s character Jim Stark is lying in the street intoxicated, playing with a toy monkey. Incongruously, Jim appears well dressed, in a white shirt, jacket and tie. Dean improvised with the monkey, a prop from an earlier scene of a street mugging that was eventually cut from the film. As the opening credit sequence concludes, he’s hauled off to jail.


Jim apparently got drunk at an uptight society event and landed in the street where the police found him. When Jim’s parents, superbly played by Jim Backus and Ann Doran, show up to bail him out, it becomes clear why the boy has problems. The father, Frank, is blustery but weak and Carol, in a mink coat, is a 1950s version of a helicopter mom. The grandmother, played by Virginia Brissac who began in motion pictures in 1913, is a mean biddy also dressed in fur. Why anyone needs a mink in balmy Los Angeles is a mystery, but the outfits show them as part of the country club set.r1

Before he leaves the station, Jim meets Ray Fremick (Ed Platt) an understanding, plain clothes cop who specializes in juvenile delinquency cases. It’s probably no coincidence that he shares a name with the director. The lieutenant lets Jim vent and gives him a dose of tough love. Ray reappears in a critical scene late in the film.

imagesDean was a young adult but captured the emotional turmoil of adolescence as well as anyone before or since. He idolized Marlon Brando and one can hear echoes of Brando in Dean’s delivery, especially in the quieter moments. Kazan saw Dean as untrained and tried to dissuade Nicholas Ray from using him. “I became very impatient with the Dean legend.… Brando was Dean’s hero,” recalled Kazan. “Marlon, well trained by Stella Adler, had excellent technique.… Dean had no technique.” Fortunately, just as Ray the sympathetic cop recognizes the decency in Jim, director Ray saw something special in Dean and ignored Kazan’s warning.

The movie originated with a 1944 non-fiction book, Rebel Without a Cause: The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath by psychiatrist Robert Linder which Warner Brothers bought. It was in limbo until assigned to Nicholas Ray who came up with an original story idea about delinquency called Blind Run. Irving Shulman, the author of the New York street gang novel The Amboy Dukes wrote a film treatment based on Ray’s story idea. Stewart Stern wrote a screenplay using the treatment but incorporating many original ideas of his own. Stern thought of the story as a Greek tragedy that takes place over the course of a single day. All that remained of Linder’s book was the title.

790441hContrary to the commonly held belief that poverty causes delinquency, what the film conveys is that the lead characters are children from the better part of town, not the inner city. For authenticity, Ray brought in former Hollywood gang member Frank Mazzola to play dark-haired Crunch as well as serve as technical advisor.

Enter Judy, the girl next door and the part Natalie Wood fought for. When Jim walks out of his house the next morning, he spots her waiting for a ride to school. It’s Jim’s first day at Dawson High where Judy is part of the In Crowd. There’s a hint of a spark but then her friends drive up. Jim gets the brush.


Wood equaled Bette Davis record for the longest screen cry.

We first met Judy at the beginning of the film as one of the young people arrested that night. She was wandering around after dark suspiciously. In her police interview, it’s obvious she has “daddy” issues. When told that her mother is there to pick her up and not her father, she throws a fit. Back at home, Judy tires to kiss her father (William Hopper) but gets slapped for her trouble. That’s the first kiss of the movie and it’s not a happy one.


The next day, when “the kids” come to pick her up, they mock Jim and she joins in, to his embarrassment and dismay. Before they drive off, she and her boyfriend Buzz (Corey Allen) share a “butterfly kiss.” It’s a punch in the gut to sensitive Jim who’s taken with Judy.

On a field trip to the Planetarium in Griffith Park, a lecturer talks about the cosmos and “man alone.” He could have been talking about Jim. Diverging from Romeo and Juliet or West Side Story, there aren’t rival gangs at war. Jim is the new kid. He hasn’t had time to join or form a gang though he does have a single disciple in the outcast Plato (Sal Mineo). “What does he know about man alone,” asks Plato.


In the screenplay, it was Burt Lancaster’s photo in Plato’s locker. It was changed to Alan Ladd because he was under contract to Warners.

In the Vanity Fair article, “Dangerous Talents,” Sam Kashner writes:

Sal Mineo—so affecting as the essentially fatherless outcast Plato—later commented that he had portrayed the first gay teenager on film. There are little clues: the photograph of Alan Ladd taped to his locker door, his longing looks at Jim Stark, his disguised declaration of love in the abandoned mansion…. Dean instructed Mineo, “Look at me the way I look at Natalie,” for their intimate scene in the Getty mansion. It had to be subtle. A Production Code officer had written in a memo to Jack L. Warner on March 22, “It is of course vital that there be no inference of a questionable or homosexual relationship between Plato and Jim.”


Jim gets into a knife fight with Buzz after the gang insinuates he’s “chicken.” Nicholas Ray had directed Broadway musicals. He choreographed the fight like a dance, with the actors using real switchblade knives but with the blades dulled. They also wore chest protectors, all of which didn’t entirely prevent injuries. The authorities break up the fight but not before it’s decided that they’ll settle their differences with a “chickie run.”


In the early part of the film, Jim is formally dressed in a white shirt, tie and sport coat, a preppy without a cause. When he gets dressed for the “chickie run” a dangerous game played with old jalopies near a bluff overlooking the ocean, Jim changes into his iconic white T-shirt and red windbreaker.


Several legends have sprung up about the red jacket. According to Lawrence Frascella and Al Weisel’s Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making Rebel Without a Cause, Ray claimed to have found a Red Cross jacket and dipped it “in black paint to take off the sheen.” Frank Mazolla said the cast found the jacket on a shopping trip to Mattson’s clothing store on Hollywood Boulevard. Most credibly, costume designer Moss Mabry told the authors that he created three of them from bolts of nylon fabric, based on the jacket of a young man auditioning for a part in the movie.

A tragedy unites Jim, Judy and Plato. They go into hiding at an old mansion near the planetarium [The Getty mansion from Sunset Boulevard (1950)]. The more mature Jim and Judy become Plato’s surrogate parents. Plato brought a loaded gun for protection that leads to a final tragedy as the twenty-four hour cycle ends.


But before that, Jim and Judy lie together and kiss after Judy confesses her love. It was Wood’s first screen kiss. Ironically, she was having affairs simultaneously with Dennis Hopper who plays gang member Goon and with Ray, then in his forties. Kashner writes:

She had remained loyal to the man who had given her her first adult role—in life and in art. Until her own tragic death, in 1981, when she drowned off Catalina Island, Wood always acknowledged Rebel Without a Cause as the film that inspired her to become a serious actress.

Another vital component of the film is the orchestral score by Dean’s friend, Leonard Rosenman, who also scored East of Eden. Rebel‘s score is lush and the recurring theme contributes greatly to the romantic mood. Following Dean’s death on September 30, 1955, fans broke into the apartment Rosenman and Dean shared, looking for souvenirs.

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