|this is the part where I admit I cuffed my jeans in high school because I thought James Dean made it cool.|
Rebel Without a Cause (1955) is one of those movies I suspect a lot of people know from the iconography of the poster and can probably tell you it stars James Dean and Natalie Wood, but I don't think most folks around my age have bothered to ever watch.
When I was in middle school a friend's dad who had been of age when the movie came out insisted we get sat down and watch the thing. At the time I didn't find much of the movie terribly relatable, and I recall we kept having to stop the movie to basically explain the 1950's to us kids in a context that didn't involve Olivia Newton John and John Travolta.
I watched it again in high school, and it felt far more relevant at least in its depiction of the gulf between the world of parents and what's going on with their kids, but that was about 20 years ago.
Rewatching the film highlighted some of the excellent work by director Nicholas Ray, and to see the relationships between the characters through the eyes of an adult (physically, perhaps not emotionally) was most certainly interesting after all this time. I don't think I really noticed how intensely compressed the timeline of the main action actually is during the film (the last two thirds occurs over basically one day, I believe). I was far more acutely aware of the cues from Sal Mineo toward James Dean's Jim and that was some pretty bold stuff for a 1955 film. And, most definitely the relationship between Jim and his parents feels less staged as a plotpoint and more as a condemnation of conflicting parenting styles. Of course in 2012 a character enjoying having three adults in their household is probably considered excellent parenting above criticism, so, you know... different times.
Some smaller details stuck out. I realized that not only do you not really see smokers on the big screen anymore, you never see teenagers smoking, which was a staple of films when I was a kid and goes utterly unmentioned when Natalie Wood and Jimmy Dean light up (to mention it would be uncool, anyway).
Despite being the film he might be most associated with (I guess Giant is the other contender), the movie was released posthumously for Dean. The fatal car wreck that took his life occurred just a month before the film's premier. Still, Giant wouldn't hit the screen til after Rebel, and perhaps that's fitting, as the performance and film have greater scope, but it's tragic that Dean would never see the reaction to either.
Dean's performance is of the school that you can recognize from Brando and Newman and other contemporaries who had stepped away from the traditions of the stage actor and played to the intimacy of the camera. In the mumbling world of the teenaged male, it seemed only too appropriate for the seeming prisoner within his own skin to need a camera snooping closeby when nobody is watching to see what's going on with Jim Stark.
I'm not sure sure that this is the first movie that moved beyond depicting teens as spunky, can-do mini-adults, but the film's impact and potency still resonate in even the goofier teen sex comedies as kids struggle to communicate with their folks and to gain their acceptance/ legitimize whatever the heck it is they're going through (see: The Breakfast Club).
Because of the age of the characters, it's also a bit easier to understand the decisions made by the protagonists and antagonists in the film, their motives and stakes are worn on their sleeve.
One bit I always liked in the movie, that goes undiscussed, is that the guy who seemed ready to kill Jim early in the film extends a hand of friendship, adding to the tragedy that drives the rest of the movie. Of course, it says nothing great about Natalie Wood's Judy that she seems to bounce from Buzz to Jim mostly because Buzz is no longer with us, but high school girls... they're screwy.
Anyway, if you've not seen Dean's defining role and you'd like to see an extremely young Dennis Hopper playing a fellow named "Goon", this is your chance.