Rebel Without a Cause: Melodrama as a stylistic mode

By Aristophanes


The following post contains spoilers for the film Rebel Without a Cause. Reader discretion is advised.


Some may describe Rebel Without a Cause (1955), starring James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo, as exploitive, relying on the insecurities of younger generations to propel a narrative that is fussy and violent, ultimately leading to a conclusion that means nothing. Others may disagree, however, and you merely have to look at the name of the film itself to understand their argument.

The main concern of Rebel is not to merely propel an interesting narrative, although arguably it succeeds at that as well, but to accurately portray the feelings of many children that are caught between the extremes of a society that both wants to domesticate them, while also glorifying the male gender role as hero, breadwinner and fighter. Rebel is a “women’s film” about being a man, accurately transferring the stylistic mode of melodrama onto the tapestry of adolescence and showing that the macho-man stereotype still resounds within the ideal of a nuclear family-oriented society.

Jim Stark is a boy caught between the two conflicting societal ideals of domestication and strength. Nothing embodies this struggle more than the overt characterization of his own mother and father. Jim struggles with his father’s refusal to be a firm parent, all the while being pushed around by the strength of his wife. As Jim tells his parents at one point in the film: “You’re tearing me apart!” That’s exactly what’s happening here, and this is what ultimately leads Jim, who we believe to be a good-natured fellow, down the path of rebellion.

When Jim first confesses to his mother and father that he was at the “chickie run” where Buzz died, the familial rift is shown in the framing. Jim’s mother is halfway up the stairs with his father at the bottom and Jim in-between. Not only is the camera canted — a technique also called the “Dutch angle,” where the camera is tilted slightly to one side — at this point in the film in order to show the unnatural structure of the family, but even the positioning of the characters on a vertical plane is evidence that corresponds to their unique characterizations. Jim is almost always pictured in the frame of the camera as looking down at his father, literally, representing that he indeed looks down at his father symbolically, as well.

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Rebel Without a Cause is about nothing — and that’s why it’s so brilliant. The characters are fighting for little and achieving naught, showing how adolescents often feel under the inconsistently firm hand of society. (For example, the chaperones at the planetarium didn’t stop the knife fight between Jim and Buzz). The melodramatic style here is evident in that we are dealing with problems that are inherently domestic, such as the place of a man’s power in his role of fatherhood, but the story becomes meta in that our melodramatic domestic plot is actually about a struggle between domestication and rebellion.

The canted camera angle is notable because at many points it occurs in motion as opposed to appearing via a direct cut. Director Nicholas Ray might be trying to emphasize the idea that everything goes sideways gradually. Our place in society doesn’t immediately become unnatural; it’s a continual process of decline. ■


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