Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
Rebel Without A Cause (1955)
Pages: (1) (2) (3)
The Story (continued)

In the school hallway, Plato, the unbalanced orphaned kid seeking affection in the police station, opens his school locker, revealing two things: a glossy, autographed fan/hero photo of 43 year-old, diminutive blonde male actor Alan Ladd, his fantasy screen idol, and a small, scallop-edged mirror.

[Note: Ladd had just starred in the classic western Shane (1953) as a mysterious buckskin knight without a past, who rescued some homesteaders, and who was idolized by a young boy, played by Brandon de Wilde.]

As Plato ritualistically combs his hair in the mirror mounted above the pin-up picture, he stares at Jim's mirror reflection in the hall-way behind him, after shifting the locker's angle to see him better.

[Note: Jim, who is unaware of Plato watching him yearningly, as de Wilde worshipped Ladd, is reading an announcement for a 2 pm field trip that afternoon to a planetarium.]

Plato intently views Jim as a potential replacement hero-figure who could potentially become his friend as another outsider. [Later, Judy also admires Jim through a mirror image.] Jim continues on to the boys' room, and double-checks the sign before entering - since he had almost walked into the girls' room moments earlier.

At 2 o'clock that afternoon, the junior and senior classes take a field trip to see the planetarium star show and listen to a lecture at the Griffith Observatory (named for Col. Griffith J. Griffith who also founded Griffith Park, where the Observatory was located). There, in one of two observatory scenes in the film (both of which lead to confrontation and disaster), an astronomy lecturer gives an existential narration of the darkness of the universe - expanding the problems of the teenagers to cosmic levels:

An immensity of our universe. For many days, before the end of our Earth, people would look into the night sky and notice a star, increasingly bright and increasingly near...As the star approaches us, the weather will change. The great polar fields of the north and south will rot and divide and the seas will turn warm...

Jim arrives late and sits behind Buzz and the gang. While looking at the moving pictures of the stars, the heavens, and the constellations (with animal symbols) in the planetarium's observatory, Jim befriends Plato in the seat behind him: "Once you've been up there, you know you've been someplace." As the lecturer points out the constellation of Taurus the bull, Jim lets out a loud, foolish "mooing" bull/cow sound, hoping that the joke will get him closer to the group. But it backfires - gang members call him Moo and speculate: "I'll bet he fights cows." Plato cautions:

Plato: Hey, you shouldn't monkey with him. He's a wheel.
Jim: Who?
Plato: Buzz. So is she. It's hard to make friends with these guys.
Jim: I don't want to make friends.

In a dramatic and destructive, red "burst of gas and fire" during the show on the dome, the lecturer finishes with a future cosmic big bang - shy and anxious, Plato ducks under the seats and curls up in a fetal position. [Note: The cataclysmic demonstration symbolizes problems within the families of the three main characters. It also foreshadows an explosive car burst in the 'chickie' fight that kills Buzz - and later, the gunfire that brings about Plato's unjust death]:

And while the flash of our beginning has not yet traveled the light-years into the distance, has not yet been seen by planets deep within the other galaxies, you will disappear into the blackness of the space from which we came - destroyed, as we began, in a burst of gas and fire. The heavens are still and cold once more. In all the immensity of our universe and the galaxies beyond, the earth will not be missed. Through the infinite reaches of space, the problems of man seem trivial and naive indeed, and man existing alone seems himself an episode of little consequence.

The pupils are taught and warned about the enormity and transience of the universe and the littleness of humankind on the dome overhead. Indeed, the explosive cloud of red gas teaches that life is cruel, and that mankind's (and the juveniles') problems "seem trivial and naive indeed." When the planetarium show is over, Jim urges Plato to come out of hiding - and he obligingly obeys. Plato denies the chastening effect of the lesson, believing that his own personal solitude in his own existence is the ultimate:

Jim: It's all over, the world ended.
Plato: What does he know about man alone?

Hints of Plato's friend-lessness ("man alone") and emerging homosexuality are symbolized in his loneliness and retreat from life with his peers. He and Jim emerge from the artificial light on the inside of the planetarium to the bright sunshine outdoors - where they know they will have to face the hostility of Buzz's gang. Plato suggests that the two of them avoid the gang and retreat to a nearby deserted mansion overlooking the hillside.

Surrounded by his zippered, leather-clad gang and their girlfriends (Judy looks at her makeup and red lipstick in a compact mirror and then looks up toward Jim), Buzz decides to puncture the tires on Jim's car, taunting Jim to fight. The switchblade knife sticks up in the middle of the frame - like an erect phallic symbol. When the tire has been deflated of air, Jim responds that Buzz is living in an imaginary world: "You know something?...You read too many comic books." Jim is called "real abstract" and "different." As Jim removes his coat (and adds, "I'm cute, too"), the gang makes chicken noises at him, but he refuses to be labeled.

Although Jim won't retaliate because of the tire damage, he will fight when called a "chicken" and his masculinity is questioned - it sends him into an uncontrollable fit of anger:

Jim: Is that meaning me? Is that meaning me?...Chicken?
Buzz: Yes.
Jim: You shouldn't have called me that. (Then he zeroes in on Judy.) How about you? Huh? Are you always at ringside?...No, I mean what do you hang around such rank company for? (Buzz pushes him.)
Buzz: What?
Jim: (To Buzz after throwing away his crowbar) I don't want any trouble.
Gang member: The "blade game" huh, Buzz? (Buzz clicks open his switchblade)
Jim: I thought only punks fought with knives.
Buzz: Well, who's fighting? I'm not fighting. It's examination time, man. It's a crazy game.

In a highly stylized, choreographed tense knife-blade fight with Buzz on the driveway, a ritualistic fight that evokes bullfighting, Jim picks up a flick knife that is thrown at his feet and reluctantly strikes back. He becomes incensed when called a 'chicken' and begins to take action. During the fight, Judy remains loyal to her friends, but Plato tries to defend Jim with a chain. Jim wins the tense contest by disarming Buzz [a symbol of castration], but not wanting to cause any further trouble, throws his own knife away. While witnessing the fight, the planetarium lecturer notes to a guide how the distant delinquents weren't part of his "audience" - signifying how ignorant they are of his forewarning of catastrophic disaster.

The knife fight scene sets the stage for a greater challenge - a dangerous "chickie run," planned for 8 o'clock that night on the bluffs at a nearby coastal promontory, Millertown Bluff. Jim doesn't know what a chickie run is (although he boasts "that's all I ever do"), thinking it means being a "chicken." But he plays along and accepts the challenge - to avoid being seen as weak:

That's all I ever do.

[A chickie run is a high-speed drag race toward the edge of a steep bluff above the ocean using stolen cars. The first to jump out seconds before reaching the edge is considered chicken, cowardly, and not worthy of recognition by peers. As Jim's psychological orientation teeters between teen-age and adulthood, the cliffs are the perfect location to test his experience - will he survive the life-death challenge and cross over into the world of adulthood?]

Three short vignettes before the challenge illustrate the continuing theme of parent/child alienation.

(1) Jim returns home and finds his frilly, apron-clad father ludicrously positioned on his knees on the upstairs landing cleaning up a spilled tray of food. He was on his way to the bedroom with a meal for his wife who doesn't feel well. His cowardly father is not willing to admit the accident to his mother: "Shhh. Listen, I'd better, better clean it up before she sees it." Exasperated with his non-patriarchal, emasculated father, he tells him: "Let her see it." In a masterful use of non-verbal communication, speaking in inarticulate, hesitating, and incomplete sentences, Jim pleads with his weak and foolish dad to stand and be a man.

(2) Judy, a nubile teen with a desperate need to be loved, is seen in her home asking her father (William Hopper) for a kiss at the meal table after he has returned from work:

Judy: Daddy?...Haven't you forgotten something?
Father: What? (She forces a kiss on him.) (He mocks her need for affection and humiliates her, embarrassed because she is too old.) What's the matter with you? You're getting too old for that kind of stuff, kiddo. I thought you stopped doing that long ago..
Judy: I didn't want to stop.

Judy remains upset over her father's reluctance to kiss her and respond to her affection:

Judy: I guess I just don't understand anything.
Father: I'm tired. I'd like to change the subject.
Judy: Why?
Father: I'd just like to, that's all. Girls your age don't do things like that. You need an explanation?...
Judy: Girls don't love their father? Since when? Since I got to be 16?
Father (after slapping her and chastising her with a reprimanding tone): Stop that! Sit down!
Judy: May I please be excused?
Father: Hey, hey glamour-puss. I'm sorry. We'll break the date. We'll stay home.
Judy: This isn't my home. (She leaves, slamming the front door.)
Father: I don't know what to do. All of a sudden, she's, she's a problem.

Her mother (Rochelle Hudson) reassures him, admitting that she too doesn't know how to help their adolescent daughter:

She'll outgrow it dear, it's just the age...It's just the age when nothing fits.

(3) In his bedroom as Jim thinks about the 'chickie run' challenge that lies before him, he seeks out his father for advice about saving one's honor in a risky, dangerous situation: "Suppose you had to do something, you had to go someplace and do this thing that was, you knew it was very dangerous, but it was a matter of honor. And you had to prove it. What would you do?" He clearly needs help and wishes to engage his father in a serious conversation. Jim's father, still wearing his frilly apron, asks if there's a trick answer, and makes a half-hearted reply about avoiding hasty decisions.

After noticing blood on Jim's shirt from the knife fight, he asks: "Jim. Jim, what happened? What kind of trouble are you in?" His father finally suggests an evasive, sensible and tidy approach - the best way to make a decision is to create a list of "all the pros and cons" on paper. Confused in the process of growing up, Jim wants immediate, real, direct, clear answers from his indecisive father, asking him about what it means to be a man who must go and prove himself:

What can you do when you have to be a man?...Now you give me a direct answer! Are you gonna keep me from going?

As Jim changes into a more appropriate, traditional costume symbolic of his rebelliousness against the conservative colors of his upbringing and his father's frilly and unmasculine, feminized garb, his long-winded father drones on about avoiding confrontation of any kind:

Father: Listen, you're at a wonderful age. In ten years you'll look back on this...and then wish that...
Jim: Ten years. I want it now, I want an answer now. I need one.
Father: Listen, Jimbo, I'm just trying to show you how foolish you are. When you're older, you'll look back at this, and you'll, well, you'll laugh at yourself, for thinking that this is so important. It's not as if you are alone. This has happened to every boy. It happened to me when I was your age, maybe a year older.

Jim puts on a white T-shirt, jeans, boots, and a bright red windbreaker jacket [that he wears for the remainder of the film]. During his father's reply, Jim storms downstairs and leaves for the car challenge when he fails to get any decisive advice.

In the dramatic "chickie run" night scene, one of the various initiation stages that Jim will pass through on the way to becoming a man, Plato and a pink-sweatered Judy are spectators, as well as many other teenagers:

Jim: How did you get here?
Plato: I hitched.
Jim: I'll bet you'd go to a hanging, wouldn't you?
Plato: I guess it's just my morbid personality.

Like two sides of the same coin, Buzz and Jim talk about the challenge and test the cars. Meanwhile, Plato fantasizes to Judy that Jim is his "best friend" [with homosexual overtones], and points out the importance of sincerity. He describes Jim as a father figure (who will take him on expeditions, like a father would a son):

Judy: Is he a friend of yours?
Plato: Yeah, yeah, he's my best friend.
Judy: What's he like?
Plato: Oh, I don't know. You have to get to know him. He doesn't say much but, but when he does, you know he means it. He's sincere.
Judy: Well, that's the main thing...
Plato: Maybe next summer, he's gonna take me hunting with him, and fishing. I want him to teach me how, because I know he won't get mad if I goof. His name's Jim. It's, it's really James, but he likes Jim more. And people he really likes, he lets them call him Jamie.
Judy: Jamie?

Buzz and Jim start to develop a friendship in their preparations at the edge of the cliff's abyss. They share a cigarette together - Buzz takes a lit cigarette from Jim's mouth. Buzz seems to take a liking to Jim, but as confused adolescents, they are compelled to prove themselves in macho fashion and carry out the self-destructive duel - the daredevil race.

Buzz: This is the edge. That's the end.
Jim: Yeah. It certainly is.
Buzz: You know something? I like you. You know that?
Jim: Why do we do this?
Buzz: You got to do something, now don't you?

Two stolen cars are readied, and the runway toward the cliff is artificially but theatrically lit by the headlights of other cars. As they sit in their cars next to each other before the signal, Judy gives Buzz dirt to rub on his hands and kisses him. (For good luck, Jim kisses Judy's mirrored compact-case that she left on her chair at the police station.) Jim envies Judy's attention to Buzz, and calls her to come over to his car and assist him too: "Judy. Me, too...Uh, may I have some dirt, please?" She laughs and fulfills his request - without the kiss. [His red-colored windbreaker distinguishes him from the black coat that Buzz wears, and links him to Judy - she wore red at the police station.]

At Judy's signal for the start of the ritualistic race, the two cars race forward right past her toward the cliff-edge. At the last minute, Buzz's leather coat jacket sleeve catches on the door handle and he plunges to his death on the rocks far below. Jim has smoothly tumbled out of his car before it goes over the edge. Everyone is stunned by the accident that kills Buzz. Judy, Jim, and others look over the edge of the cliff at the wreckage below. Almost everyone flees the scene following Buzz's death - gang members are soon to seek revenge against Jim, the one they unreasonably blame for the loss of their leader.

Jim is left to comfort and console a stunned and shocked Judy. In a significant image representing the trio's affinity and unity, Judy, Jim, and Plato are left at the edge of the cliff. As Jim extends his hand to Judy, and Plato stands in the background between them, he touches her fingertips and then takes her hand. Drawn together, Jim drives both of them home. At Judy's house, he gives her back her mirror-compact with a light-hearted joke: "You want to see a monkey?" [Her face visualized in the reflection of the mirror that Jim possessed - and returned - causes Judy to realize that he has affection for her, unlike her father. She transfers her affection to Jim for the remainder of the film.] As he drives off, she endearingly holds the mirror next to her cheek. The events of the tragic evening and the death of her boyfriend have completely left her memory.

Dreaming of family and friendship, Plato suggests an alternative for the two of them for the night:

Hey, you want to come home with me? I mean there's nobody home at my house and heck, I'm not tired. Are you? See, I don't have too many people I can talk to...If you want to come, we could talk, and in the morning, we could have breakfast like my dad used to. Gee, if only you could have been my dad.

Lost, Plato is already looking up to Jim as a father figure, but Jim thinks they have had enough for one night. Plato jots down Jim's house address on a notepad.

When Jim enters the house, in a memorable image signifying the anxiety and overheated condition he finds himself in, Jim drinks milk directly from the bottle, and then puts the cold glass on his forehead and cheek to cool himself. He finds his father downstairs, complacently asleep (literally and morally) in front of the television - all the stations have gone off the air and only static is visible. Jim lies backwards on the red living room couch with his head dangling off the front end. When his mother approaches from upstairs, the camera revolves an entire 180 degrees counter-clockwise to reflect his point of view. His mother asks if he is all right.

In a memorable speech at the start of an emotionally-climactic scene, he tells his parents that he needs a "direct answer" this time, because he is "in trouble." He explains how he protected his honor in a game of chicken and must come to terms with the part he played in Buzz's death.

Dad, I said it was a matter of honor, remember? They called me chicken. You know, chicken? I had to go because if I didn't I'd never be able to face those kids again. I got in one of those cars, and Buzz, that - Buzz, one of those kids - he got in the other car, and we had to drive fast and then jump, see, before the car came to the end of the bluff, and I got out OK, and Buzz didn't and, uh, killed him...I can't - I can't keep it to myself anymore.

Obviously, both parents want to discourage him from calling the police and not confess his role in the incident, but he wants them to confirm that he should go to the police. Jim implicates his parents as partly to blame: "You're involved in this just like I am." Jim is determined to be honest and report the tragic accident to the police, but his concerned father doesn't want him to get involved: "Did anyone see you there? Did anyone see your license plate?" His domineering mother wonders whether the other boys will go to the police. Exasperated with them, he repeats over and over again his frustration with their solution. He is determined to be honest, if only with himself:

Jim: It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter.
Jim's mother: Why should you be the only one involved?
Jim's father: Far be it from me to tell you what to do...
Jim's mother: Oh, are you going to preach? Do we have to listen to a sermon now?
Jim's father: Well, I'm only trying to tell him what you mean. You can't be idealistic all your life, Jim.
Jim: Except to yourself.
Jim's father: Nobody thanks you for sticking your neck out.
Jim: Except - except to yourself.
Jim's father: Wait a minute.
Jim: Except to yourself. You don't want me to go.
Jim's mother: No. No, I don't want you to go to the police. There were other people. Why should you be the only one involved.

His parents believe there will be too much negative publicity, but he won't allow them to be objective or dispassionate:

But I am involved. We are all involved. Mom, a boy, a kid was killed tonight. I don't see how I can get out of that by pretending that it didn't happen.

His weak-willed, indecisive father cannot offer support: "But you know that you did the wrong thing. That's the main thing, isn't it?" Jim wants to tell the truth to the authorities as his father had instructed him, but his mother suggests that he just not "volunteer" the information. Jim doesn't want to live that way and "tell a little white lie." Supposedly, according to his father, he will learn when he gets older. Then his mother suggests that they move away again to get away from the problem. Jim objects to that idea: "You're not tearing me loose again."

A terrific domestic family argument ensues on the family stairs - a symbolic location for matters of indecisiveness and crisis. Jim confronts his irresponsible mother and father:

Jim: You are not going to use me as an excuse again.
Jim's mother: I don't.
Jim: Every time you can't face yourself, you blame it on me.
Jim's mother: That is not true!
Jim: You say it's because of me. You say it's because of the neighborhood.
Jim's mother: No!
Jim: You use every other phony excuse. Mom, I, just once, I want to do something right, and I don't want you to run away from me again. Dad?
Jim's father: This is all going too fast for me.
Jim: You better give me something. You better give me something fast.
Jim's mother: (addressing him as a juvenile) Jimmy, you're very young. A foolish decision now could wreck your whole life. In ten years, you'll never know this even happened.
Jim: Dad, answer her. Tell her. Ten years. Dad, let me hear you answer her. Dad, Dad, stand up for me.

But his father is powerless and impotent, his head buried in his hands. Jim lunges, pulls his father from his chair and stands him up, drags him into the living room, knocks him down over another chair and chokes him until his mother pulls on him to stop. At the porch doors, he viciously kicks a hole in a portrait painting that stands on the floor - a symbol of his contempt for his parents and for their decorative pretense.

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