Nicholas Ray wrote the story for "Rebel Without a Cause" in the 1950s and was able to make it into a film in 1955 after it was converted to a screenplay by Irving Shulman and Stewart Stern. At the time, not many people understood the concept of "teen angst" and Ray sought to make a film that embodied it. With a budget of only $1.5 million, the film became a massive hit and star vehicle for James Dean.
The story begins with young Jim Stark being found in the street in a drunken state. He is summarily arrested and taken down to the station, where two other main characters, Judy and Plato, are also talking with police. Judy is having trouble with her controlling parents and being talked to for not following their orders. Plato is a troubled young man who killed some animals for an unknown reason. After Jim's parents come down to the jail, he reveals that he is tired of being moved around all the time and has no respect for his father, who is really "whipped" by Jim's mother.
The next day is Jim's first day at school in the new town and he finds it hard to make friends. He runs into Judy, the gal from the night before, and tries to hang out with her, but she decides to ride with her group of friends instead. That day, Jim's class goes to the local planetarium, where he receives the negative attention of Buzz, a young punk, after making a cow sound during the presentation. After the show, Buzz and his pals slice Jim's tires and he ends up getting in a knife fight with Buzz.
After Buzz calls Jim a chicken, he challenges him to a game of chicken, where each participant drives a car towards a cliff and the first person to dive out is a "chicken". Later that evening, they perform the game, but Buzz's jacket catches on the door and he is unable to roll out before plunging over the cliff. Buzz's friends seek to avenge his death by stalking Jim, who flees with Judy and Plato to an abandoned mansion. When the three young punks find them, they find themselves fighting for their lives.
Jim Stark was played by James Dean, who had previously only starred in a single feature film. Judy was played by young Natalie Wood, who went on to a very successful career in movies. The character of Plato was played by Sal Mineo, who became a successful television actor afterwards. Jim's father and mother were played by Jim Backus (of Gilligan's Island fame) and Ann Doran, a popular television actress.
The acting in this film was great all around. James Dean gives a very believable performance, and his acting at the police station shows his great emotional range. Natalie Wood also gives a good performance as the young woman who doesn't understand why her father isn't paying her as much attention anymore. Sal Mineo was great as the disturbed young lad who is searching for a family and finds in his two friends a perfect father and mother. I thought Corey Allen, who played Buzz, did a good job of portraying a young man who feels he has to give a show for his friends, but understands his opponent.
The movie features an entirely original score, which matches the film very well. There are a lot of suspenseful tunes, which serve to match the tense tone of the plot and acting. The score was composed by Leonard Rosenman, who had only composed for two prior films, including East of Eden.
There are some great set locations in this film that really add to the excitement. The planetarium is a massive building on a hillside that really provides a nice backdrop for the showdown between Buzz and Jim. The mansion where Jim, Judy, and Plato escape to is abandoned, creating a surreal sense, which seems to reflect Plato's dream that the two might be his parents.
Overall, I was very impressed with this picture, although I found James Dean's acting in East of Eden to be more enjoyable. Many parts of the film seem a bit dated since not many people have knife fights or play chicken anymore, but they are easily correlated to more modern practices. This film is worth watching to see one of Dean's few performances, if nothing else.