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September 20, 2005

Rebel Without a Cause

Nicholas Ray - 1955
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

I originally was going to write about Rebel Without a Cause next week, closer to the 50th anniversary of the death of James Dean. While the weather isn't as bad as some feared, Hurricane Rita has disrupted the flow of films from Netflix and Nicheflix. That I have Rebel as part of my DVD collection has more to do with Nicholas Ray than with Dean.

When I first saw Rebel, it was on a black and white television broadcast in the late Sixties. I had heard about James Dean but didn't really know much about him other than that he starred in this film. I had also read an article stating that MGM was going to produce a remake starring Bob Dylan. Based on what has passed as Bob Dylan's acting career, let us give thanks that the proposed remake never happened, and that no one yet has been dumb enough to try and remake Rebel. While seeing the film on television gave me the gist of the narrative, I felt like I never really saw Rebel the first time until I saw it in a theater, in CinemaScope and color.

The opening shots of Rebel need to be seen in widescreen in order for the film to be properly understood. Even though the principle characters do not meet until several minutes into the film, Ray unites Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo within the screen, even when they are separated by glass partitions. Throughout the scene at the police station, Ray groups the trio as well has having Dean with Wood or with Mineo, within the same shot. Even when the characters see themselves as isolated from others, Ray has visually placed them together, anticipating the narrative. It wasn't until a few years later that I learned Ray had spent some time studying under Frank Lloyd Wright which at least in part explains why Ray understood how to take advantage of the wide screen.

I had the opportunity to meet Nick Ray twice. The first time was at a screening of Rebel at Columbia University in 1971. The print was even more faded than the one I saw at the Thalia Theater a couple of years earlier. Even worse, the print tore during the screening, prompting Ray to yell about the lack of care given the film by Warner Brothers. I met Ray again almost a year and a half later at Portland, Oregon. I was working at the Northwest Film Study Center. Ray was going to various venues with prints of his films. We could have screened Rebel, which would have been the more financially responsible choice, but I argued in favor of They Live by Night, Ray's little seen debut feature. I admit this was selfishness on my part. The screening did not attract as many people as we would have liked, but those who saw the film enjoyed it. Afterwards, at a friend's house, a bunch of us got together for beer and pizza with Ray. What little I remember after thirty years was asking Ray about the Elia Kazan and the blacklist, and Ray justifying that Kazan gave no new names. Of younger directors, he expressed admiration for Robert Altman but seemed visibly shaken when I told him that Altman was filming a new version of Thieves Like Us, the same novel used as the basis for Ray's first film. I have a vague memory of Ray singing a folk song which would be in keeping with part of his pre-Hollywood life. Ray was of course asked about James Dean and talked about how they had planned to work again after Rebel.

What we do know about Dean is that he was set to star in Somebody Up There Likes Me and Left-Handed Gun. It makes one wonder if Paul Newman owes his career to the death of Dean. Based on Nicholas Ray's filmography, would Dean have starred in The True Story of Jesse James or King of Kings? As it turned out, Dean didn't have to pretend to be Jesus. As of September 30, 1955, James Dean became bigger in death than he was in life.

An interesting evaluation of Nicholas Ray has been written by Jonathan Rosenbaum. I also recommend an interview with Rebel screenwriter Stewart Stern at Cinematical.

Posted by peter at September 20, 2005 04:35 PM