Staging and Composition in Rebel Without a Cause

Decades Project: 1/5 of the 50's

"It's just the age when nothing fits."

James Dean's unforgettable performance and Ernest Haller's gorgeous Technicolor photography have made Rebel Without a Cause a classic piece of historical Americana, but it's more than just pretty colors and a prettier face. It features a coming of age tale about how family, friendship, and interpersonal relationships define identity (in general) and masculinity (in particular).

Jim Stark (Dean) begins the movie as an aimless drifter. He arrives on scene drunk, stumbling around the streets looking for somewhere to exist, and ends up cuddling with a discarded toy (a telling point of identification for his character). As he's taken to the police station, it becomes clear why he's like this: his parents have a disjointed and unequal relationship. His mother dominates his father, and this constant conflict has begun to assault his psychological well-being ("You're tearing me apart!"). In order to reconstitute his shattered ego, Jim spends the duration of the film navigating a series of relationships with both friends and family.

The cause of Jim's broken sense of self is also its greatest potential source of healing, so he finds the strongest emotional connection with his father, Frank. He's troubled by Frank's subservience to Carol, Jim's mother. He doesn't understand how you can be a man when you let a woman walk all over you. Their relationship can be seen immediately through their apparel: Jim's signature manly red jacket is an obvious contrast to his father's effeminate yellow, frilly apron.

Jim asks why Frank doesn't stand up for himself, and how to decide between what's right and wrong, and the family's subsequent discussion of ethics and morality is a masterpiece of using staging and camera angles to express psychological conflict.

The scene begins (interactive album here; if you use Chrome just get Hover Zoom) with Frank and Carol on opposite sides of Jim with each slightly taller then him, showing how they pull him in opposite directions and how they loom over him. Frank sits down as Carol takes control of the discussion and Jim joins him, showing Frank's subservience to Carol and Jim's allegiance with Frank. Carol feels she's won and tries to leave by rising up out of the top of the frame, but Jim stands up to stop her; but here the camera switches from Frank's perspective (shooting from screen right to left) to Carol's (left to right) with both Jim and Frank below her, showing that she's still in control of the situation. Desperate for support, Jim grabs Frank and lifts him up above Carol in an attempt to make him (literally) stand up for himself, but resorting to force ultimately lands him on the ground, back down below her where he started.

Of course you can get all this information from the great writing and incredible performances, but the reason films like Rebel Without a Cause remain relevant decades after their release is that they excel on all fronts, constantly delivering information both explicitly through dialogue and unconsciously through visual composition.

Jim also navigates his identity through his various relationships with Plato ("If only you coulda been my dad. We could have breakfast in the morning."), Judy ("All the time I've been looking for someone to love me. And now I love somebody. And it's so easy. Why is it easy now?"), and Buzz ("You know something? I like you." / "Why do we do this?" / "You've gotta do something."). The film explores different ways to be (and to be a man) in society, giving it the emotional and cultural resonance it needs to live forever in the hearts of those who experience the same conflicts.

It's just a great movie. It's also weirdly prophetic, because James Dean spends the whole movie facing death and talking about dying in a car accident ("I don't know what to do anymore. Except maybe die.") only to do just that himself the year the film was released. Definitely check it out if you're interested in American classics. And if you're not, James Dean has something to say to you: "You know something? You read too many comic books."