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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 4/19/00

Rebel Without a Cause
1955 (1999) - Warner Bros.

review by Dan Kelly of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Rebel Without a Cause Film Rating: A

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B+/B+

Specs and Features

111 mins, NR, letterboxed widescreen (2.55:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 1:06:19, at the start of chapter 20), Snapper case packaging, "behind-the-scenes" documentary Rediscovering a Rebel, 3 Behind the Cameras documentaries, production notes, cast and crew filmographies, 3 theatrical trailers (for Rebel Without a Cause, East of Eden and Giant), film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (35 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1) and French (DD mono), subtitles: English and French, Closed Captioned

Before American Beauty dug its satirical claws into the American suburbs, Rebel Without a Cause showed the country that all is not necessarily well within the nuclear family. It proved to moviegoers of the 1950s that the rosy portraits of the close-knit American family they were force fed on television were indeed different from their actual lives. Rebel Without a Cause created an entirely different, more accurate movie about the American teen experience for viewers, regardless of age.

At the start of the movie, we're introduced to all the principle characters at the city police department. Jim (James Dean) is brought in after being picked up on the streets. He is drunk, and as he talks with one of the officers, it becomes obvious that he is unhappy with his life and his constantly bickering parents. Judy (Natalie Wood), a frequent runaway, is being questioned while one of the cops calls her parents to come pick her up. The police are also questioning Plato (Sal Mineo, in his screen debut). Nervous and shy, he sits hunched over in a chair explaining why he shot a litter of puppies, as his maid comforts him in the absence of his mother.

Jim again runs into Judy the next morning and is coyly brushed off by her as she waits for "the kids," her clique of super cool friends. They are quick to dismiss Jim and on a field trip later in the day, Jim tangles horns with Buzz, the leader of the group. Their fight picks up later on that evening and as it comes to its disastrous end, Judy is torn between her allegiance to her friends and her burgeoning affection for Jim.

As the movie progresses, Jim's relationship with both Judy and Plato develops into a second family. They start to rely on each other for the love and support they're each not getting at home. In a very subtle way, their complete acceptance of one another is harrowing. All of the restraints that are put on them by their family and peers completely disappear until they are allowed to feel genuine appreciation for each other. It is this unconditional acceptance for each other that makes the movie's dramatic conclusion all the more tragic.

Director Nicholas Ray created a powerful movie and pulled some amazing performances out of the lead cast. During the more dramatic parts of the movie, it takes on the look and feel of a well-rehearsed stage play, and the cast completely disappears within their characters. Jim Backus is sweet and endearing as Jim's caring father, who is too weak to see that his wife walks all over him. Wood and Mineo each received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for their heartbreaking performances and Dean's turn as an anguished teen has become a watermark by which to judge other actors in similar roles.

The sparkling new anamorphic transfer created for the DVD release is absolutely stunning. Amazingly, the print that was used is very clean and nearly spot free. There are a few instances of flecks and scratches, but considering the age of the movie, it's to be expected. All the bright tints of the original Warner-color release are rendered excellently and flesh tones are natural and smooth. For all of the movies darker night shots, the black levels are solid and almost entirely without grain. After seeing Rebel Without a Cause in its original, glorious Cinemascope 2.55:1 ratio, you'll never want to see a dreaded pan and scan copy again. You're missing a lot if you're not seeing it this way.

The new Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is also good. Though it's more oriented toward the front speakers, Leonard Rosenman's gorgeous musical score is well maintained and has a nice bass level. There is also a nice balance between the movie's dialogue and musical score. Never once did I strain to hear what was being said on screen. Occasionally, the new sound mix creates a bit of an echo in some of the dialogue passages, but this is a rare occurrence.

Warner includes a small, but welcome, set of extras on the disc. Rediscovering a Rebel, a 10 minute documentary on the making of the film, features a few scenes that were cut out of the theatrical version. The scenes are nice, but the voice-over commentary of the documentary drowns out any of the audio present in the scenes. It would have been nice to have these as a separate extra, rather than being incorporated into the featurette. There's also some screen tests of James Dean with some of the other cast members, as well as shots of the original, discarded black and white footage of the film. The first three days of the shoot were done this way, before Warner decided (wisely, mind you) to shell out a few more bucks and shoot the film in color.

The Behind the Cameras documentaries (presumably taken from a television program) are pure 1950s fluff. At times, they look as staged and scripted as the movie itself. Natalie Wood and Jim Backus answer a few questions like they're reading their answers off of cue cards. James Dean's interview, however, is more than slightly eerie. He concludes the minute or two session with the host by warning viewers to drive safely. Three trailers (East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause and Giant) round out the major features of the disc. The trailers for the two former films are enhanced for widescreen televisions and presented in their original Cinemascope ratio of 2.55:1, while the latter is full frame. Some very brief production notes and filmographies are also included.

Rebel Without a Cause is a perfect melodrama, the likes of which is rarely seen outside of European cinema today. It's an American classic, and Warner has treated it as such. The effort they put into making this disc is evident from the moment we see their logo. This movie has never looked better and this DVD is a welcome addition to any film enthusiast's home library.

Dan Kelly

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