Falling stars

James Dean and Sal Mineo at Griffith Observatory.
This week I’ll be making a guest appearance on the Arthouse Legends podcast to discuss Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955), which incidentally was one of the first films I ever posted about for this blog, back in the spring of 2011.  That was the last time I’d seen it, so I was due for a re-watch.  It remains an essential film, as compelling a cultural object as it is an aesthetic one.  (I love the play of the planetarium lights on Dean’s face in the penultimate scene, an image that I screen-capped in my original post.)  While Dean was always at least one footstep behind Brando and maybe half a step behind Clift as an actor, it’s impossible not to be moved by his performance in this film, which is made all the more poignant by its references to (literal) dying stars—ostensibly meant to symbolize the tragic fate of characters like Plato (Sal Mineo), but made ironic by the real-life fate of Dean, whose star had already burnt out when the film premiered on October 29, 1955.  (Dean died September 30 of that year.)  The film is also the apotheosis of a particular style of Hollywood melodrama perfected by filmmakers like Ray, Douglas Sirk, and Vincente Minnelli and which peaked from 1954 to 1956, the years of All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind, Bigger Than Life and Tea and Sympathy, Giant and East of Eden.  Among Ray’s melodramas I’m partial to Bigger Than Life, but Rebel is every bit as saturated with color, emotion, and expression.  When Ray’s camera becomes so caught up in the drama of the story that it careens into a tilt, as at the moment of Plato’s death, you know you’re in the hands of a film artist working from his gut rather than with his head.


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