Directed by Nicholas Ray, it offers both social commentary and an alternative to previous films showing wrongdoers in urban rural locations. The title was taken from Robert M. Lindner’s 1944 book, Rebel Without a Cause: The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath. The film itself, however, does not reference Lindner’s book in any way. Rebel Without a Cause is a look into the life of Jim Stark (James Dean) and his attempt to try and figure out what he wants to do with his life. After being taken to the police station his parents are brought in to help find out what he did. . His parents (Jim Backus and Ann Doran) are unsure what to do with him. Also at the station is Judy (Natalie Wood) and John “Plato” Crawford (Sal Mineo). Jim offers his coat to Plato but he refuses. The next day is Jim’s first day at his high school. It is hear where he encounters Buzz, the leader of the “cool” crowd. Buzz and his gang slash the tires of Jim’s cars and a fight starts. The boys decide to settle their differences by having a ‘chicken run.’ During it, Buzz is killed when he is unable to escape from his car in time. Jim’s parents are kindly and liberal, but are too indulgent. Judy starts off as a member of the ‘ cool crowd’, as she is Buzz’s girlfriend, but after Buzz’s death a romance develops between Jim and herself.
The main theme of the film is the choice between the desire to conform to accepted values and the desire to rebel by finding one’s own individual ones, a choice that seems legitimate in one’s teenage years. The film suggests that this choice is more complex than might be thought. Throughout the film there is an atmosphere of heightened emotion. It is a film that needs fine acting, both to convey this emotional atmosphere and to do justice to its ambitious theme. Sal Mineo as Plato and Natalie Wood as Judy are both good, but James Dean is better than good, making the tormented figure of Jim come vividly alive.