The second of James Dean's three signature films to get the 4K UHD treatment, Rebel Without a Cause features an eye-popping HDR transfer that brings even more intensity to the iconic actor's alternately tender and angst-ridden performance. The tale of three troubled teens and their unlikely bond may be anchored in the 1950s, but Nicholas Ray's striking direction and the timeless portrayals of Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo keep it relevant. A Dolby Atmos track enhances the appeal of this noteworthy release. Highly Recommended.
Say the name James Dean and a slightly hunched, slender, sandy-haired figure wearing blue jeans, a white t-shirt, and a scuffed red jacket immediately springs to mind...and so does the character of troubled, tortured teen Jim Stark. More so than Cal Trask in East of Eden and Jett Rink in Giant, Jim seems to be Dean's alter ego and Rebel Without a Cause is without question the film that cemented this iconic actor's reputation and sealed his fate as a symbol of tormented youth.
Director Nicholas Ray's ripped-from-the-headlines drama of alienation, defiance, and individualism stands as one of the first (and best) movies to explore the generation gap between rowdy teens and their uptight, conservative, and highly ineffectual parents, and though its depiction of that gaping chasm sometimes goes over the top, the potent message still rings true. Circumstances and environments may change, but core problems remain the same and that's why Rebel Without a Cause resonates just as strongly today as it did almost seven decades ago.
Another reason the film strikes such a chord is that the kids it depicts are the kids next door. Jim, Judy (Natalie Wood), Plato (Sal Mineo), and the rest of the high-schoolers aren't the same punks who populate The Blackboard Jungle; they're "good" kids from "fine" homes who don't appreciate the privileges afforded them and rebel simply to break free from the constricting, rigid atmosphere of middle-class inertia. Lack of both communication and intimacy fuel the problems and with insight and perception, screenwriter Stewart Stern gets under the teens' skins, painting an affecting portrait of loners who long for meaning and connection.
As the stereotypical new kid in town, Jim, who already has a history of attracting "trouble," is instantly ostracized by his peers and forced to prove his worth and mettle first in a knife fight and then - in the film's most famous scene - a dangerous game of "chickie run" that requires two drivers to speed their cars toward a cliff. The last one to jump out before his vehicle careens over the edge wins. Tragedy, of course, ensues and the resulting fallout sends Jim, Judy, and the worshipping Plato to an abandoned mansion where they hope to find a measure of peace.
Ray's tough, melodramatic style suits the material well and Dean commands the screen as the anguished adolescent who's more mature than his bickering parents, played with just the mix of empathy, outrage, and exasperation by Jim Backus and Ann Doran. Wood, who previously had played only juvenile parts, makes a striking impression in her first semi-mature role, displaying the combination of tenderness, spunk, and luminosity that would soon loft her to major stardom, and Mineo will break your heart as a neglected outcast who latches onto Jim like a lost puppy. Both the 17-year-old Wood and 16-year-old Mineo nabbed supporting Oscar nods for their natural and affecting portrayals. (Wood lost to Jo Van Fleet in East of Eden and Mineo was bested by Jack Lemmon in Mister Roberts.)
Some elements of Rebel Without a Cause seem a bit dated today, but others eerily reflect our current culture of violence. In this era of pervasive bullying and mass shootings, it's downright chilling to hear the police question Plato early in the film about killing puppies and later to see the distraught teen frantically grab a pistol from beneath his mother's pillow and race into the street after an adolescent gang roughed him up. The latter act leads to further bloodshed and is so reminiscent of the stories we hear about today's kids taking their parents' guns to school and committing heinous acts.
Rebel Without a Cause was made 68 years ago, but it retains its magnetism because of its timeless themes and the universal emotions coursing through it. At one point or another, we've all felt like Jim, Judy, and Plato, and it's that visceral identification - along with Dean's mystique and his raw, powerful portrayal - that keep this movie relevant.
Vital Disc Stats: The Ultra HD Blu-ray
Rebel Without a Cause arrives on 4K UHD packaged in a standard case inside an attractive matte sleeve. A standard Blu-ray that includes all the special features and a leaflet containing the code for the Movies Anywhere digital copy are tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 2160p/HEVC H.265 with HDR and default audio is Dolby Atmos. (The original theatrical audio, presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono, is also included.) Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
This looks to be the exact same master Warner Home Video used for the 2013 Blu-ray edition of Rebel Without a Cause, and that's not at all a bad thing. The Blu-ray transfer was a stunner, but this 2160p/HEVC H.265 rendering with HDR significantly outclasses it. Bolder, brighter, and more colorful than its 1080p counterpart, the picture assaults the senses from the moment the lush red titles flash upon the screen. Grain is evident, but only calls attention to itself in a couple of scenes, and the outstanding clarity and contrast produce an image that brims with detail and depth. The stars and galaxies in the planetarium sequence twinkle more vibrantly than they do on the Blu-ray, the textures and patterns of costumes and upholstery are more vivid, and shadow delineation is far superior. Much of Rebel Without a Cause takes place at night, and this transfer brings details that were once engulfed in darkness into focus.
Blacks are still lustrously inky, whites are better defined and colors - especially the predominant red hues - jump off the screen. In addition to Dean's signature red jacket, Wood's lipstick and fiery coat in the opening police station scene set the image ablaze. The green landscapes look lusher, the sky is bluer, and shade variations are more distinct. Flesh tones appear natural much of the time, but occasionally adopt a slight orange tinge. Faint reflections in glass are sharp and the terrific close-ups of Dean, Wood, and Mineo intensify the angst, tenderness, and despair that pulses through the narrative. No nicks, marks, or scratches mar the pristine source and no digital anomalies disrupt the mood.
If you're a fan of Rebel Without a Cause, you'll certainly want to upgrade to this impressive 4K UHD presentation.
Warner upgrades the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track on the 2013 Blu-ray to Dolby Atmos for this 4K UHD release, and though no airplanes, helicopters, or fireworks engage the overhead speakers, the track provides robust, enveloping sound. The biggest beneficiary just might be Leonard Rosenman's sweeping score that's distinguished by superior fidelity that lends the soaring strings and bold brass accents a marvelous fullness and depth of tone. More so than the previous 5.1 track, the wide dynamic scale allows the music free rein to push the limits of the high and low spectrums without any distortion. Sonic accents like screaming sirens, rumbling car engines, and gunshots are distinct, and subtleties like crickets and footsteps come through cleanly. All the dialogue, except for a few mumbled lines delivered by Dean, is easy to comprehend and no age-related hiss, pops, or crackle intrude.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track supplies similarly clean, crisp sound, but it lacks the oomph of the Atmos presentation.
Because the 2013 Blu-ray disc is contained within this 4K UHD release, all the extras are included as well. The audio commentary is the only supplement that appears on the 4K UHD disc.
Audio Commentary – Douglas L. Rathgeb, who wrote a book about the making of Rebel Without a Cause, sits down for a fact-filled commentary that's well worth checking out. Rathgeb knows his topic inside and out and his nuts-and-bolts remarks provide us with an absorbing account of the film's production. He identifies all the locations, talks about how the movie's opening and ending differ from the original script, reviews the numerous censorship issues that had to be addressed, and discusses Warner's decision to release Rebel on schedule despite Dean's death a month before. Rathgeb also sprinkles interesting bits of trivia throughout his monologue: the mansion used in the film was the same one where Sunset Boulevard was shot; Wood broke Bette Davis' record for the longest crying scene in a Warner Bros picture; Ann Doran, who played Dean's mother, detested her role; and director Nicholas Ray makes a cameo appearance in the movie's final seconds. In addition, he debunks the theory that Plato is a homosexual, points out where Dean strays from the script and improvises, and examines the background of the "chickie run" race. The commentary is short on anecdotes, behind-the-scenes gossip (the affair between Wood and Ray is only briefly alluded to), and biographical information, but it's still interesting from a production standpoint.
Documentary: "James Dean Remembered" (SD, 67 minutes) – The same year he produced the big-screen MGM musicals celebration That's Entertainment!, Jack Haley Jr. also mounted a small-screen profile of the legendary James Dean. Though this 1974 TV special is more of a psychoanalytical session than a documentary, it's nevertheless a stimulating and insightful examination of Dean's character, talent, and influences. Host Peter Lawford interviews several Dean intimates, including Sammy Davis Jr., Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, and composer Leonard Rosenman, all of whom share marvelous anecdotes, express their high regard for Dean, and try their best to dissect his personality, motivations, and actions. Topics debated include Dean's possible homosexual and self-destructive tendencies, his troubled relationship with his father, and the younger generation's attraction to him both during his life and after his death. All of the guests are surprisingly candid and articulate and Lawford makes an excellent interviewer...if you can divorce the man from his hideous '70s wardrobe. This documentary really gets under the actor's skin and explores both his professional genius and personal demons.
Featurette: "Rebel Without a Cause: Defiant Innocents" (SD, 37 minutes) – This introspective 2005 featurette goes beneath the film's surface as screenwriter Stewart Stern talks about the development of the "operatic" story, its personal nature, and how he identified with both Jim and Plato. (Stern states he originally wanted to kill off Jim in the script, but Warner Bros vetoed the idea as too downbeat.) Among other things, we learn about the mass auditions for all the teen parts, how Natalie Wood had to fight for the role of Judy to break free of the adolescent typecasting that plagued her, and how Rebel began its life as a black-and-white B picture but was elevated to color and A status after Dean appeared poised for stardom. The most salacious detail, however, concerns Dennis Hopper's recollection of his on-set affair with Wood and how, at the same time, the 16-year-old actress was also sexually involved with her 44-year-old director. Consequently, tension erupted between Hopper and Ray and reportedly Hopper's role in the film was severely reduced as a result.
Featurette: "Dennis Hopper: Memories from the Warner Lot" (HD, 11 minutes) – In this 2010 piece, the actor reminisces about his experiences making both Rebel Without a Cause and Giant, as well as the wondrous atmosphere of Warner's Burbank studio. Though his tenure at Warner was brief, Hopper recalls it with great fondness, and his enthusiasm and charisma enhance this personal remembrance.
Sal Mineo Screen Test (SD, 6 minutes) – Filmed in black-and-white, this polished and involving test focuses on Sal Mineo, but Dean and Wood provide critical and expert support.
Wardrobe Test (SD, 5 minutes) – This black-and-white test (Rebel Without a Cause was originally slated to be filmed in black-and-white) features some sound, so we hear the off-camera instructions and can appreciate the interplay between the actors.
Black & White Deleted Scenes Without Sound (SD, 10 minutes) – These five excised scenes and snippets were all filmed at the Griffith Park Planetarium and are a collection of establishing shots and alternate angles. Interesting, but not noteworthy.
Color Deleted Scenes Without Sound (SD, 13 minutes) – These 11 brief color scenes span a multitude of locations, but don't convey much information. The final selection is billed as an alternate ending and offers a different fate for Plato. Otherwise, these scenes are fairly ho-hum.
Vintage Featurettes: "Behind the Cameras" (SD, 22 minutes) – Three black-and-white segments of a promotional Warner Bros television program hosted by actor Gig Young highlight the film. The first documents the deployment and arrival of a fleet of studio trucks to the Griffith Park Planetarium for a day of location shooting and includes a brief lunchtime chat with Natalie Wood. The second takes a peek inside the Warner story department and features an obviously scripted interview with comedian Jim Backus, who discusses his crossover dramatic role. The final installment duplicates and expands on the story department segment, shows the chicken race scene, then segues into a public service announcement about safe driving in the guise of an interview between Young and Dean, who's dressed in a cowboy costume from Giant. Shot just a few days before Dean's death in an automobile accident, reportedly caused in part by Dean driving 30 miles-per-hour over the posted speed limit, it's a bit eerie to see Dean warn against the dangers of reckless driving and vehemently state he never speeds on the highway.
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 2 minutes) – The original preview for Rebel Without a Cause touts Dean's electricity and the story's relevance and emotional impact.
Rebel Without a Cause still packs a potent punch and this 4K UHD upgrade with HDR and a Dolby Atmos track heightens the intensity and immediacy of director Nicholas Ray's blistering study of teen angst. James Dean's explosive performance carries this engrossing and affecting film that combines timeless themes with artistry and emotion. In addition to the terrific A/V presentation, the 2013 Blu-ray and all of its bountiful extras are included in this top-notch release that's well worth an upgrade. Highly Recommended.