Rebel Without a Cause (Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray)

A rebellious young man with a troubled past comes to a new town, finding friends and enemies.

April 10, 2023 13 Min Read

Review by: Matt Malouf

Plot: What’s it about?

It’s hard to believe it’s been almost 60 years since James Dean died. For those unfamiliar, the young actor died in an automobile accident on September 30th, 1955. He only made a handful of films, three to be exact. Of his three films, two were released posthumously (Rebel Without a Cause and Giant). Rebel is perhaps his most popular film. Dean had such a cool demeanor that it’s easy to see where he continues to fascinate almost six decades past his death. He was said to have often tested the patience of the directors he worked with, provoking them in such a way to get a reaction out of them. This would prove little if Dean wasn’t such a great actor. There really aren’t any actors now that have the mystique that he had. It must have frustrated those attending Rebel in 1955 and not be reminded of his death. His death occurred just under a month before the film was released in theaters. By the time the audience got to see his performance in full, he was already gone. The film is a highly regarded classic by many fans and critics alike. One of the notes inside this Blu-ray package states that in 1998 it was rated 59th on the AFI ‘s “100 years…100 Movies”. I more than agree with its inclusion. Prior to seeing the film for the first time, I had preconceived notions on the idea of a “Rebel”. Truth be told, the film might be a little tame for most modern audiences. The character Dean plays here is not so much a rebel as he is misunderstood. The same can be said of many of the film’s characters. Conformity was a big thing in the 1950’s and even the slightest step outside the lines was considered rebellious. The film more than exceeded my expectations on my first viewing, but I did find it interesting how different I had imagined it to be in my head. What’s interesting is that James Dean’s personal life was far more reckless than the character we see in the film.

It seems after all my rambling that I failed to mention exactly what the film is about. James Dean stars as Jim Stark. He is the new kid in town and has a tough time adapting to the new setting and new people. His parents are oblivious to what’s going on in his life, often offering contradicting opinions and advice. “You’re tearing me apart” he tells his parents. The film begins with Stark drunk in the streets, his parents soon arrive to pick him up from the police station. His father is played by Jim Backus and right away we see how misguided he is. He offers one of the police officers a cigar as he’s bailing his son out of jail. He tells his Jim that he can drink, but only a little. Moments earlier he tells him not to drink. The point is made that he and his parents do not see eye to eye. With this issue behind them Jim begins his first day of High School in the new town. He seems to be optimistic about starting fresh in a new town and so it begins. He spots a group of kids on his way to school and asks for directions. They mock him by pointing in several different directions (rather tame by today’s standard, but that’s OK). Judy (Natalie Wood) quickly catches his eye. She is dating Buzz Gunderson (Corey Allen). The film also shows us Judy’s home life. She is overly affectionate with her father (William Hopper) while he is rather put off by this. He takes to her younger brother and tells her that she needs to stop being this way toward him. Buzz and Jim eventually get involved in a knife fight outside the planetarium. This is one of the key scenes Rebel is famous for. Another is the “Chickie Run” scene. It’s here that we see the characters as they all race their cars toward a cliff and the first one to jump out loses the game thus becoming “chicken”. After a character gets his jacket sleeve stuck in the door, he plunges to his death before he can escape the vehicle. All the kids flee the scene, and this is where Jim and Judy become closer. This also leads to the climax of the film which goes down a dark path. Another character of great importance is Plato (Sal Mineo). He looks up to Jim and confides in him. Plato has a few dark secrets of his own, but down deep is a good kid. Some of the film has aged a bit, but it is very much a product of its time as well. It offers a nice slice of 1950’s life in 24 hours. It offers an honest, accurate depiction of teenage life and resonates long after it’s over. One thing that has always interested me is that it could easily take place in any year. Save for some of the staples of the 50s, there’s still a lot of what’s seen in this film happening today. Sure, times change, but bullying still exists especially in the age of the internet and cyber-bullying.

One of the criticisms of the film was its treatment of the adult characters. Some critics felt the parents were not written like real adults behave and it felt false. I can’t say this is totally untrue, but the saving grace is that the film is told from the teenager’s perspective and the adults do not dominate the screen-time. It is far from a deal breaker for me as the film has more than enough qualities to stumble over a slight misstep. There’s a reason the film has held up for several decades. The direction by Nicholas Ray is sharp and well-paced, the acting superb and the characters richly drawn. It tells a simple story about confused characters. Several films have tried to match its charm, but little has succeeded. It’s one of the rare times I agree with a film’s “Classic” status. It’s great to finally have the film in the HD format as well. It’s not to be missed. I continue to be fascinated by James Dean. He lived a fast-paced lifestyle and was taken too soon. We can only wonder what he would’ve done had he lived a long life. He is not just one of the greatest actors to ever grace the silver screen, but also one of the coolest. It’s hard to deny his charm. Rebel Without a Cause is a must-own not just for James Dean fans, but casual filmgoers alike. Do yourself a favor and pick up this great film.

Video: How’s it look?

I found the nearly 10-year-old Blu-Ray (included here) to look quite nice, but this new coat of paint, so to speak, looks even better. The 2.55:1 transfer is quite a treat to the eyes. The sharpness, the colors, details, all of it appears natural, but appropriately clean looking and pleasing. I could say more and more about the new 4K disc, but fans and casual viewers alike will simply be thrilled to have this film looking the best it possibly can.

Audio: How’s it sound?

The Dolby Atmos track was also rather pleasing. This isn’t the first film to come to mind to show off a sound system, but for what it needs to do, it does so wonderfully. I didn’t notice a huge improvement over the DTS HD track, but that’s because that track also provided impressive vocals and clarity. This track presents the film, I feel, as strongly as possible.

Supplements: What are the extras?

Most will know that the first run of this film in the HD format appeared with a Blu-Ray book as part of its packaging. It contained 46 pages with various pictures and production notes. That isn’t duplicated here, but thankfully, the previous Blu-Ray disc is included which contains the bulk of the extras. This is where I felt Warner Brothers dropped the ball with their 4K release of Giant. 

  • Audio Commentary – This appears on the 4K disc as well. This features Douglas L. Rathgeb, who provides some nice notes, but also resorts to narrating what’s happening on screen as well.
  • James Dean Remembered – This clocks in just over an hour and offers some very insightful interviews with Natalie Wood, Sammy Davis Jr. and Sal Mineo to name a few. It is hosted by Peter Lawford. It’s very worth watching.
  • Screen tests – We find ones for Dean, Wood and Mineo
  • Wardrobe tests – Pretty self-explanatory
  • Deleted Scenes – While interesting to see, that is about all we can do since these have no audio.
  • Dennis Hopper: Memories from the Warner Lot – For about 10 minutes, Hopper gives us some nice stories about his career and WB in the 1950’s.
  • Rebel Without a Cause: Defiant Innocents – A lengthy behind the scenes look at the making of the film.
  • Behind the Cameras – These offer several short promo pieces featuring a few stars from the film.
  • Theatrical Trailer 
  • Warner Bros. Presents – This is three segments that includes talk of Rebel and a few interview clips as well.

The Bottom Line

Even if you own the previous version it is worth upgrading for the advanced picture quality alone. You do lose the digibook packaging that was present in the first run, but the upgraded picture makes it worthwhile. I appreciate the fact that all the extras are carried over as well, in addition to a digital copy. I also think I like this new cover art better as well. The film is a piece of American history and cinema fans and fans of James Dean should definitely have this set in their collections.

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