Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
2.55:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital 5.1
Warner Home Video, $26.99

Rebel Without a Cause is a landmark film in so many ways that it’s difficult to avoid superlatives when discussing it. Released in 1955, it altered the coming-of-age genre forever; the filmmakers’ decision to treat teenagers seriously in a work of artistic intent and merit has since influenced dozens of films, from River’s Edge to Thirteen. On a technical level, the picture is even more important. Released just two years after CinemaScope was introduced, Rebel Without a Cause significantly raised the aesthetic standard for the format. With its incredibly dense, expressive, widescreen images, the picture was to CinemaScope what Gone With the Wind was to Technicolor: a quantum leap forward in the artistic and technical evolution of a format.

From its opening titles to its heartbreaking finale, Rebel Without a Cause contains some of the most spellbinding images in film history. Director Nicholas Ray and director of photography Ernest Haller, ASC use the widescreen frame to emphasize the separations and divisions between the story’s alienated teenagers and the impotent adults who struggle to understand them. An early sequence set inside a police station is just one stunning example of visual storytelling; Ray and Haller shoot the actors through doorways, windows and other frames, allowing the characters’ relationships within the frame to convey their inner struggles to the audience.

Rebel Without a Cause is remembered today primarily for James Dean’s performance, and there’s no denying the power of what may be the most nakedly emotional performance of the era. Yet there’s so much more to the movie, whose mise-en-scène tells the story of an entire society on the verge of spiritual and emotional collapse. The kids in the movie are suffocated by their parents’ world, but the pervasive sense of hopelessness is balanced by a vibrant color scheme that reflects the passion the teenagers feel but don’t know how to express. The dynamic use of color isn’t surprising, given that Haller was a cinematographer on Gone With the Wind. In its own subtle way, Haller’s work on this picture is as impressive as his contribution to that earlier classic. In each scene, he finds the perfect calibration between color, light and space to convey the emotional states of the characters.

Haller’s images look better on this new two-disc DVD than they have in earlier video incarnations, thanks to Warner’s new digital transfer from a restoration that was exhibited theatrically earlier this year. The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack doesn’t sound appreciably different from the one on the 1999 DVD release of the film, but the dialogue and effects are clear, and Leonard Rosenman’s underrated score sounds terrific.

Douglas L. Rathgeb, author of The Making of Rebel Without a Cause, provides a commentary track that rarely digs beneath the surface of the movie. It’s a nice overview of the film’s production history, but aficionados won’t learn much that they don’t already know. The DVD’s other supplements reflect Dean’s popularity and focus on his legacy more than on any other component of the film. The lengthiest supplement is a 66-minute TV documentary from the 1970s, James Dean Remembered, which is hosted by Peter Lawford and contains many fascinating interviews with celebrities who knew and worked with Dean. The hideous pan-and-scan clips from Dean’s movies make the piece tough to watch at times, but the reminiscences by Natalie Wood, Sammy Davis Jr. and others are delightful.

The DVD also features a collection of screen and wardrobe tests and some promotional shorts from the time of Rebel’s release. The best supplement is the new featurette “Rebel Without a Cause: Defiant Innocents,” which includes interviews with screenwriter Stewart Stern and several surviving cast members, who reveal that Haller’s color masterpiece was originally to be filmed in black-and-white. Some deleted footage and a trailer round out the extras.

— Jim Hemphill

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© 2005 American Cinematographer.