Rebel Without a Cause: A Classic Tale of Troubled Teens (4K/Blu-ray)
In his tragically short career, the great James Dean only had starring roles in three films, all of which are considered classics today. Not only that, his incredible performances in "East of Eden" and "Giant" earned him posthumous Oscar nods for Best Actor, making them the first such nominations in Oscar history. However, the film that always seems to be his most popular favorite is "Rebel Without a Cause," in which he delivers what is perhaps his most iconic performance. With the film making its debut on 4K this week, it seems the perfect time to revisit this cinematic milestone of troubled teenagers to see how well it holds up and where its popularity came from in the first place.
Taking place in Los Angeles, we meet the three main teenage characters at a police station. Jim (James Dean) has been brought in for being drunk in public, Judy (Natalie Wood) violated curfew, and Plato (Sal Mineo) shot some puppies. Through their time at the station, we learn a little more about each of them: Jim can't stand his parents fighting all the time & how his father doesn't have much of a spine, Judy isn't too happy with the way things are at her home either, and Plato lives in a broken home where his father abandoned him and his mother is constantly away.
The next day, Jim meets Judy again and tries to offer her a ride to school, but she decides to go off with her gang of friends instead. This is Jim's first day as he just moved to the area, so it starts somewhat rough, but he does befriend Plato in the meantime, later running into him again at a field trip to an observatory, where Jim has followed Judy. It's here that one of Judy's gang friends challenges Jim to a knife fight, which the latter wins. However, this results in a "chicken run" challenge between the two (a car race towards a cliff to see who chickens out first), the result of which sets off a dangerous chain of events.
Looking at the film from a story perspective, it may not seem like anything all that different from other troubled youth films that we've seen in the decades that followed, but it was one of the first to really buckle down and tackle the subject from their point of view. It takes these three teens and asks you to understand what they're going through, while including additional elements that you might not expect, such as Jim's frustration of his father's timidity, and the extreme way in which the absence of Plato's parents has affected him.
The first half of the film basically explores the trio's teenage angst, delving into their problems and who they are (with a particular focus on Jim's sense of honor and standing up for himself), with the Chicken Run acting as a kind of turning point for the film. If I had one criticism of the story, it would be that much of the second half doesn't focus as much on those themes set up in the first half, turning somewhat into a dramatic thriller. It works fine as a conclusion, but it seems fair to say that it's a bit drawn out, and a little uneven compared to what comes before. Overall though, it balances out to be an engaging (and important) tale that hits upon some intriguing subject matter.
However, in this critic's opinion, what really makes the film stand out is the trio of great performances from its three leads: James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo. Dean in particular gives a powerhouse performance as a young man trying to deal with quite a lot in his formative years. It becomes rather shocking to learn that this was his one starring role that didn't get him an Oscar nod (though he did get a BAFTA nod), while his co-stars earned nominations for their outstanding work. All of them took what could've easily been a very melodramatic story and elevated it to another level.
Taken all together, it's a very good film that earns its status as a classic thanks to its intriguing themes and excellent performances. It may have a slight issue with staying constant in its focus, but whether you're looking for a cinematic landmark in its area of exploration or just some damn fine acting, "Rebel Without a Cause" remains an iconic film that still holds up quite well today and is very much worth revisiting nearly 70 years after its debut.
"Rebel Without a Cause" comes to 4K/Blu-ray in 2160p UHD/1080p HD transfers in the original aspect ratio of 2.55:1. The film may be nearly 70 years old, but the restoration that Warner Bros. put it through makes it look new again, with an image that looks remarkably stunning throughout. Equally impressive are the accompanying Dolby Atmos-TrueHD/DTS-HD Master Audio tracks, which give you every aspect of the film's sound in excellent quality. Overall, there's not a single complaint to be had about the outstanding treatment that the film has received.
Commentary Douglas L. Rathgeb
James Dean Remembered (66 Minutes)
Rebel Without a Cause: Defiant Innocents (37 Minutes)
Dennis Hopper: Memories from the Warner Lot (11 Minutes)
Screen Tests (6 Minutes)
Wardrobe Tests (5 Minutes)
Behind the Cameras
The new 4K/Blu-ray Edition comes with a fascinating collection of extras that include a commentary from Douglas L. Rathgeb (author of The Making of Rebel Without a Cause), a few retrospective featurettes, tests done for the film, and a multitude of deleted sequences. Definitely plenty of material here for fans of the film to enjoy.
"Rebel Without a Cause" remains an entertaining classic even after nearly 70 years thanks to its intriguing themes and stunning performances. It may have a slight issue with keeping a consistent focus on those themes throughout with a somewhat weaker second half, but thanks to its strong trio of stars, the film remains rather engaging, ultimately making this a classic worth revisiting.
Available on 4K/Blu-ray starting tomorrow.
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