The thrill of watching a Nicholas Ray movie is the sense of chaotic exploration that pervades its every seemingly settled decision, the fact that an air of uncertainty remains even when its rounded narrative has petered out. Ray was too intelligent, too aware of the inherent contradictions and complexities thriving in human life to send audiences off with any one definitive emotion. Put simply, his happy endings are never entirely happy and his tragic endings are never entirely tragic. Rebel Without a Cause, his most widely seen and canonized work, is not popular due to any watering down of Ray's sensibility though; the film pops with primary colors, expansive Cinemascope images, and juicy characterizations of teen culture, but at its core it's a pained, searching expression of the inevitable loneliness of the human condition particularly during the age of the nuclear family.
James Dean is to Rebel Without a Cause what Anne Wiazemsky is to Au Hasard Balthasar, Jean-Pierre Léaud is to The 400 Blows, Lee Kang-Sheng is to the films of Tsai Ming-Liang, and Arnold Schwarzenegger is to, well, every movie he's in: an inseparable piece of not only the film's expression but also its surface texture. It's impossible to think of Ray's film without thinking of the way Dean's red jacket and white shirt become a focal point and an indicator of outsider status in every environment he sets foot in, or the way his perfectly sculpted, resilient hairdo never seems to be swayed in the wind, or the way his half-hearted smirk imbues an aura of tension in every situation he's in, as if he's constantly alert to the cruelty and pettiness of life and too weak to try to look past it. His character, Jim Stark, is the ideal representation of the real Dean, a man whose repressed homosexuality could not be unleashed on a conservative national consciousness in the 50's that was quickly idolizing him as a new form of suave, introverted tough-guy. Ray cleverly exploits Dean's internal conflict by casting him as a teenager who has been broken down by his family's relentless urge to relocate to new towns at the slightest hint of unhappiness, a silly, self-perpetuating defense mechanism that is equally the source and byproduct of Jim's trouble-making.
It's hard to miss the idea that the Stark family's fatal misconception - that running away or hiding from physical reality will solve internal issues - is a pungent metaphor for many things: the increasing standardization of social life in the 1950's, which effectively brushed under the rug taboos like homosexuality, violence, political unrest, and civil rights, or the enduring American compulsion towards surface gloss, whether in technology, fashion, or the arts, among others. Ray makes the charged implications of this narrative framing device omnipresent from the beginning in a rather blunt opening sequence at the LA police station where Jim has been wrangled in on account of public drunkenness. The scripting of the scene exemplifies the most pandering, literal-minded tendencies of mainstream Hollywood filmmaking, seemingly operating on the single goal of emphasizing Jim's alienation from his surroundings and his displeasure with his parents' motives (his hysterical "you're tearing me apart!" is ridiculously heavy-handed in the way it spells out character conflict, and not just because we're in a post-The Room world), but Ray still finds unique ways to stage and compose the action, bringing depth into an otherwise flimsy scene. There's Dean's sluggish posture in the compartmentalized office space, showing how meaningless such legal matters are to him, or Ray's cutaways to similarly detached figures - the vulnerable popular girl Judy (Natalie Wood), the orphaned, violence-prone Plato (Sal Mineo) - and his subsequent compositions through the glass walls of the office that fit all three characters in the same frame, underlining their similarities and foreshadowing their intertwined narratives. Ray visualizes a subversive energy brimming beneath the organized façades of this milieu.
Rebel Without a Cause uses family as a concept through which to speak about larger social ills. Parents are portrayed somewhat one-dimensionally throughout the film, all the better to exaggerate their profound ineffectiveness as models of behavior and thought. While Jim's mother Carol (Ann Doran) is an overbearing, erratic disciplinarian, his father Frank (Jim Backus) is meek and indecisive, failing to provide him advice and support at the most crucial times. Neither is entirely honest or loving towards him; if they were able to communicate intimately with each other, there'd be little reason to keep hastily moving to new places. Judy's issues at home stem from her stern, misogynist father's (William Hopper) increasing indifference towards her as she battles with puberty and maturation, and Plato's only support system is a surrogate mother in the form of a plump African-American maid (Marietta Canty) at his house (racial tensions are a small part of the film's fabric, and they're never really explored by Ray, but to the extent that there's a portrayal at all it's a sensitive one). Meanwhile, Jim, Judy, and Plato are all struggling with their own flaws, confusions, and insecurities as well - stubbornness, feelings of inadequacy, and ambivalence towards sexual identity, respectively. It's clear (sometimes overly clear) that for each of them, a conventional education, social construct, and family are no solution to these turbulent adolescent anxieties.
Ray views these institutions as equally stifled by the conformity of middle class America, and it's this homogeneity that fuels Jim's all-consuming frustration. There's a sense that Jim is aware of the issues facing American life but is unable to put them into words, instead seeing a mere lack of honesty and humility as the traits corrupting his world. Nonetheless, he goes along with the restrictive codes and rules governing his social setting, interpreting it as a certain masculine rite of passage to engage in the dangerous game of chicken posed by Judy's inflated, pompous boyfriend Buzz Gunderson (what a name for a bully!), played by Corey Allen. Already swayed by the mob of popular kids to prove his worth, Jim finds little guidance from his father, who merely suggests weighing the pros and cons of the situation when asked his opinion on the matter. The subsequent set piece, wherein what seems like half the high school gathers on a seaside cliff late at night to egg on Buzz and Jim's car race to the edge, aligns Frank's cluelessness with that of the rest of the town's parents, who were seemingly all under the impression that their kids were out at the drive-in. Inevitably, the evening ends in tragedy, and, because this is a society that hides conflict, by the morning it's as if nothing ever happened.
This game of chicken serves as a turning point in Rebel Without a Cause, providing the peak of drama before a clearing of the slates. As ever, Ray uses the image of milk to hint at notions of purity and cleansing; when Jim returns home exhausted and dazed after Buzz's death at the cliff, he drinks directly from the jar before the family erupts in what is to be their final argument in the film. Jim openly addresses the night's events and his feelings of alienation, both of which are greeted by shock, anger, and confusion. Still, Carol and Frank fail to see the root of Jim's troublesome behavior. They see it as an anomaly rather than an expression of pent-up disappointment and isolation. From this point on, the film concerns itself with the tentative creation of a new, unorthodox family unit between Jim, Judy, and Plato. Judy's curiosity towards Jim's mysterious demeanor, as well as Plato's vaguely romantic infatuation with him, forces the three of them into a strangely lopsided friendship based on mutual feelings of estrangement, but such a thing is destined to backfire in Ray's representation of suburbia, and when the cliques at school get wind of this newly formed bond they quickly get suspicious of it.
Ray is a master of adding spatial and geographical components to dramatic relationships, using specific locations or relationships within the physical space to organically suggest subtexts beneath the image. Therefore, a staircase becomes a zone of warfare and transition on a thematic and narrative level (naturally, the Stark family's climactic argument occurs here), a planetarium becomes an arena to contemplate the loneliness of the individual in a vast network, and an abandoned mansion on a hill becomes a place for Jim, Judy, and Plato to ascend beyond the limits of their structured society and occupy a new, almost fantastical secondary home. The latter two locations play a pivotal role in the development of the film's final act. Chased by Buzz's hooligans, the trio ends up hiding away in the mansion, temporarily freeing themselves of their troubles and play-acting as an actual family. Ray's widescreen compositions achieve layers of complexity in this sequence, with angles that juxtapose the smallness of the characters against the vastness and emptiness of their surroundings, emphasizing both their childlike ability to creatively project onto any surface as well as their inexperience. In one key shot, Ray places Jim on the diving board of an empty pool, Judy on the ground near him, and Plato in the deep end of the pool. It's a visualization of the power relationship that would likely exist if this were a real family, but because Jim's off balance and eventually falls into the pool, it's also a representation of how fragile and unimportant those relationships are.
Already featured early in the film as the site of some rather hokey metaphorical musing on a school field trip, the planetarium appears again with added poignancy in the final scene of Rebel Without a Cause, transcending its initially lazy grasp at universality. Plato, fearing that he has once again been taken advantage of by his peers when he mistakenly thinks Jim and Judy have abandoned him, escapes to the planetarium with gun in hand to stave off the gang pursuing him and eventually the police, who form a blockade outside. Here, the imagery on the planetarium's ceiling is mirrored beautifully by the conflict onscreen: one boy set against the vast and possibly evil outside world, acknowledging his insignificance and longing to simply be alone in the universe. In this setting though, being alone means subverting the norm, and is therefore impossible. Plato's decision, then, must end in his fate. It's an inevitability that poisons the half-hearted "happiness" of the film's ending, in which Judy in introduced to Jim's parents and the four of them drive off out of the bottom of the frame. In a world where honesty is avoided and those who seek it only meet stultifying boredom or, worse, tragedy, the edge of the frame signals a loss of individuality, the ultimate and necessary resignation to conformity.