Very few films, even today, accurately portray the complexities of teenage life. It is an age group with which it is hard to identify, and is frequently associated with rebellion, transgression, and melodramatic behavior. In Rebel Without A Cause, director Nicholas Ray works to capture the angst and emotion of American teenagers in the 1950’s. Rather than following the form of a typical Hollywood film, Rebel never really explains the motives of the teenagers, because in real life teenage (and adult) motivation is often unclear. Instead, the narrative follows a brief passage in the life of troubled teen Jim Stark and his two equally troubled friends, Plato and Judy, as they attempt to cope with peer pressure, parental disapproval, and a general confusion about life and happiness. Though the narrative gives a strong representation of teenage rebellion, the stylistic choices emphasize the complexities of the characters’ plight. Carefully controlled cinematography and mise-en-scene, particularly colorful costumes and staging, reinforce the themes of emotional distance between parent and child, the hierarchy of power in families, and the difficulties of teenage life.
The costumes in Rebel Without A Cause are made significant by their colors, particularly the contrast between bright and muted tones. Specifically, the costumes help delineate the central teenagers from their family and peers. Though the most obvious conflicts are between parent and child, the film also emphasizes the sense of separation between the three main characters (Jim, Judy, and Plato) and society as a whole. For example, on Jim’s first day of school, he is seen wearing a dull, grey suit. He enters the family kitchen, which is full of much brighter colors, particularly yellow and green. This makes him a dark contrast to his family, who continue to bicker with one another even as Jim leaves. As he walks out to meet Judy, she is wearing a bright green dress. When they meet up with the rest of the “gang”, they are also dressed in clothing of various bright colors. This serves to visually alienate Jim from his peers, who, with the exception of Judy, seem relatively happy and at ease. Both parts of this scene show that Jim does not fit in with his own family or the kids at school. Plato is another prime example of this, as his clothing also consists of very dull, muted colors. Much like Jim, Plato feels very distant from his family and peers. Though Judy begins the movie as just “one of the gang,” she quickly grows attached to Jim and is also recognized as a confused, isolated teenager, and her clothes change accordingly from very bright to relatively dull. At one point or another, all three characters wear clothing that reflects their distance from family and peers.
The color red is used to identify Jim, Judy, and Plato at their most emotionally fragile moments. It also comes to represent the height of rebellion for the three teenagers. It first appears in the police station at the beginning of the film. Judy’s entire outfit is bright red, as is her lipstick. Not only does this draw attention to Judy as one of the central characters, but it also shows her in one of her most confused and frustrated moments. She has left her home after a fight with her father and has been picked up by the police. Though she proves to be in constant conflict with her parents, this is the first and, at that moment in time, the most significant rebellion she makes, as emphasized by her dress and makeup. Later in the film, the color red moves to Jim when he dons his infamous red jacket before leaving to race his school adversary, Buzz. This moment in the film represents the height of Jim’s rebellion, particularly since it leads to Buzz’s death. Within the last few minutes of the film, the color red finally moves to Plato. Having shot one of the gang members, Plato takes refuge in the planetarium, where Jim offers him his jacket. This exchange marks the climax of rebellion for the trio. Plato is hiding from the police and Jim and Judy are choosing to stand by his side. Plato wears the red jacket when he dies, emphasizing the fact that his own rebellion caused his death.
Ray uses cinematography, particularly point of view shots and high and low angle shots, to express a hierarchy of power for the characters in Rebel Without A Cause. The first example of this takes place in the police station at the beginning of the film. During Plato’s interview, the camera frequently switches to an over-the-shoulder shot (behind the interviewing policeman) looking down at Plato. Plato appears to be the most unstable of the three troubled teens from the start. These over-the-shoulder shots establish Plato as a character with little or no power. During Jim’s interview, the camera switches to a point-of-view shot (from Jim’s perspective) looking at the rest of his family through a peephole in the door. The scene shows his family quarreling, but only Jim’s commentary can be heard. This POV shot allows the audience a glimpse of Jim’s family life and the frustrations he must deal with at home through his eyes. He even refers to his home as a “zoo,” and he looks at his family through the peephole much as he would look at animals in cages. Another significant shot takes place at the mansion when the gang discovers Plato. The scene begins as a high angle shot of Plato sleeping, but as he wakes up, the camera tilts upward to make a low angle shot of the gang members’ faces. This establishes Plato as the weakest character in the scene, and the gang as being powerful in comparison. All of these choices in cinematography work to establish clear lines between the weak and the strong, the powerful and the powerless.
In Rebel Without A Cause, various camera techniques, particularly wide-angle shots, deep focus shots, and varying shot scales convey the raw emotion of the teenagers. The very first scene exemplifies Ray’s use of stylistic camera work with a wide-angle shot of Jim. Jim can be seen clearly in the foreground, while the background is heavily distorted. This shot not only helps convey his drunken state, but it establishes him as a confused character. By making his surroundings seem warped and disfigured, Jim is immediately recognized as a pitiable character who does not understand the world in which he lives. Immediately following this scene, Jim is taken to the police station. Many of the most stylistically significant shots take place here, and all of the establishing shots in the building are deep space shots. Though the police station is not completely devoid of other people, the sense of space creates a feeling of emptiness and loneliness that reflects the feelings of the teenagers. In all three of the police interviews, particularly Judy’s, the camera switches to close up shots and medium-close up shots to focus on their emotion. With Judy’s interview, the close-ups emphasize her crying and exasperation with her father’s disapproval. The extended close up of her also shows the heavy makeup that sparked the fight with her father, which in turn brought Judy to the police station. The close up shots in the other interviews show Jim’s frustration with his parents’ hypocrisy, while Plato’s medium close ups show his hunched over position that reflects his frailty. All of these devices focus on Jim, Judy, and Plato’s emotions and the frustrations they face as teenagers.
Ray also uses several canted shots and camera rotations that, along with carefully constructed staging, enhance the thematic meaning. When Jim returns home from the race with Buzz, he lies upside down on the sofa. When his mother runs down the stairs, the camera switches to an upside down POV shot that rotates until the image of his mother is right side up. This shot seems to imply that Jim sees his mother as being upside down, possibly even “wrong” in his eyes. As this same scene continues, the family moves to the stairs. This is a very pivotal scene stylistically, with both cinematography and staging playing large roles. The characters (Jim, his mother, and his father) position themselves on the stairs as they argue about how Jim should treat Buzz’s death. The mother takes her place at top of the stairs, several steps down Jim stands defiantly against her, and at the bottom of the stairs the father sits with his head in his hands. Halfway through the scene the camera cants to the right, emphasizing the line of ascension that the characters create. This line reflects the power and aggression that each character exhibits. The mother has the most power and argues vehemently with Jim, whereas the father sits virtually powerless at the bottom of the stairs, and Jim is stuck somewhere in the middle. This helps show the hierarchy of power in Jim’s family and his inability to change it.
The staging and figure behavior in Rebel Without A Cause also serve to reinforce the themes by juxtaposing disparate character positions in space and implementing exaggerated performances. During Judy’s interview at the police station, she immediately seats herself looking away from Mr. Framek, showing that she is resisting his help. Her body language reflects her distrust of adults and her frustration with her father. Later, in the police station scene, Jim’s parents arrive and Jim places his father up on the shoe shining chair (which resembles a throne). This is one of the rare times that Jim’s father is positioned above anyone else, and he reacts by laughing, clearly not used to the idea of having power. This frustrates Jim further, and his anxiety peaks during his interview when he yells, “you’re tearing me apart!” He twists his face in anguish, and points accusingly at his parents. Jim then hunches over and buries his head in his jacket.
Throughout the film, whenever Jim’s emotion hits a frantic climax, James Dean’s acting becomes very physical. However, more often than not, Jim remains cool and collected in spite of possible danger. After having stepped on the school insignia, Jim is blocked by the gang on the stairs, but shows little emotion. The shot begins at the gang’s feet and tilts up to show a medium-long shot of them all. Having Jim on a lower step looking up at the gang makes the gang look bigger in both size and number. The shot also reinforces Jim’s separation from his peers and his inability to fit in. That same night when Jim comes home, he finds his father wearing an apron. The father is on his hands and knees cleaning up the food he dropped. Jim is ashamed to see his father like this and attempts to pull him up, but his father remains on his knees with Jim towering over him. The shot of this difference in height reflects the two men’s vastly different levels of masculinity and power. However, at the end of the film, their roles are reversed, and the father helps Jim stand up to be a man after Plato’s death.
The themes in Rebel Without A Cause all relate back to family hierarchy and teenage angst. The costumes create visual opposites among the characters, separating parent from child and teenager from teenager, while the staging, figure behavior, and camera work define the hierarchy of power and the difficulties of teenage life. Ray uses the narrative to portray youth and family, but the bulk of his thematic meaning lies in the carefully designed stylistic patterns.
Rebel Without A Cause is available for purchase on Amazon.