Rebel Without a Cause (Blu-ray)

November 20, 2013 14 Min Read

Review by: Matt Malouf

Plot: What’s it about?

It’s hard to believe its 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 did 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 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 Bluray 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 it 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 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 the course of 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 have succeeded. It’s one of the rare times I agree with a film’s “Classic” status. It’s great to finally have the film on 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 film-goers alike. Do yourself a favor and pick up this great film.

Video: How’s it look?

I no longer have the old DVD to compare this to, but from the opening scenes I could see how clean and detailed the image is. The AVC encoded image (2.55:1) displays deep blacks, strong flesh tones and very little DNR. Some scenes do appear a bit softer than I would’ve liked, but it’s never overly distracting. The print used has been cleaned up very nicely for a film pushing 60 years. The wardrobes all show great detail as well. Dean wears a wool coat early in the film and the speckles come through with rich detail. The same can be said of all of the character’s clothing throughout the film. The automobiles are very shiny and detailed, often showing strong reflections from the sun in several scenes. The background shots are stronger in some scenes than others, but nothing too major. Overall, much care has been given to this new transfer and fans will find little to complain about. This is the best the film has ever looked and probably the best it will ever look.

Audio: How’s it sound?

The DTS HD track does a nice job, but it’s important to know that this is mostly a quieter film with very few scenes where the rear channels kick in. Dialogue is always clear and there is a smooth balance to the front channels. There is a nice kick during the infamous race scene and during the climax. Tires screeching come through with powerful force during the race too. The music in the film comes across nicely as well and adds a solid boost to the track during several scenes. The film was made long before effects had become the norm and were much harder to create many decades ago. I feel pleased with the track here.

Supplements: What are the extras?

Warner Brothers have done a fantastic job with the extras too. This film is housed in a Digibook style case with 46-page booklet. It offers great notes about the production and various other factoids about the cast and crew. It even tosses in a few nice retro images as well. The cover art is simple and classy, but I do wonder if Warner Brothers had gone with a more retro vibe how they would’ve fared. Still, that is only a minor issue. This film can be purchased individually or part of a box set along with Dean’s other two films. From my understanding the box set also tosses in a few exclusives as well. The actual discs for each film remain the same, however. All of the features are carried over from the previous two-disc DVD set along with one new feature. Let’s take a look shall we?

  • Audio Commentary –  Douglas L. Rathgeb provides a very nice track that provides some great notes. Sometimes he simply narrates what’s happening on screen, but overall it’s worth a listen.
  • 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 see tests for Dean, Mineo and Wood.
  • Wardrobe Tests – Offer just that
  • Deleted Scenes –  There are several here, some in color and some in Black & White. I will say these are fun to see. “See” is about all you can do since there’s no audio, which is a shame.
  • Rebel Without a Cause: Defiant Innocents – This is another lengthy behind the scenes look at the production of Rebel.
  • Dennis Hopper: Memories from the Warner Lot – This is the one new feature on this disc. Dennis Hopper sits down and offers some nice anecdotes about working with James Dean and working on Rebel and Giant.
  • Behind the Cameras – These offer several short promos featuring Dean, Wood and Jim Backus.
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Digibook – Features a 40 page booklet with some production photos and notes about the film.

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