Thursday, July 21, 2011

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Rebel Without a Cause

When Nathaniel Rogers at The Film Experience said he was doing a "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" feature on Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause I made sure I made a preemptive blog note to be involved. I so rarely get the chance to do so, but not only do I actually own Rebel on DVD, it's also one of my favourite films. And when I say "favourite films" I mean favourite films, I mean top five of all time. The first day I ever saw it I didn't just watch it once, or even twice, but three times.

I was hooked on the film - and the film's star, James Dean, naturally - and any chance I can get to rave about it I will take. Of course, I got super busy and then these past two days I've had the flu and haven't felt like writing much and subsequently forgot all about this. Nevertheless, even though I'm a little late, there was no way I gonna miss out on this baby. I knew immediately what shot was my favourite, but that doesn't mean we can't look at a few others, right? A movie as gorgeous as this deserves to be obsessed over.

This shot is a fabulous one because it says so much about the relationship between these two characters, played by Dean and Natalie Wood. His volatile reactionary behaviour becomes blunted by the beautiful Judy that he can't even face her, while she is almost confused by why he would act this way. Everyone wants to look at her.

I adore these two shots, shared between Dean's Jim Stark and Sal Mineo's Plato. The flirtation between these two is so tragically erotic that it adds a whole 'nother dimension to the film. But I love these shots specifically because it's almost as if you can feel Plato's heart beating within them as Jim, the boy he lusts after, stands so close. The second shot of Jim playfully touching Plato's nose as he hides behind bars is very symbolic of how Plato surely feels about his sexuality. Like he's trapped behind the bars of society, but maybe - just maybe - Jim could be the one to remove those bars. Their relationship is so touching, and pains me somewhat to even talk about it.

This shot, meanwhile, exposes the sad, lonely lives of these two teenagers. It's a shot that director Ray and cinematographer Ernest Haller hold on screen for a long time, but this very moment where all three principal characters have this look of longing on their face feels the most devastating. The three of them brought together by their sadness.

Meanwhile, this shot of James Dean bathed in the shimmering light of the planetarium during the big finale? Well, I just like it because of the way it played with light and illuminates, but doesn't glorify, Dean's beauty.

However, my choice for favourite shot is this one. It comes roughly half way through the film as Jim tells his parents that he wants to go to the police regarding the "chicken death" on the clifftop. As this "all-American family" talk and argue - most argue - the camera suddenly tilts for seemingly no apparent reason. First time I saw it was confused by it, but liked it as an unexpected moment to remind audiences of 1955 that - to borrow a famous movie poster catchphrase - it's only a movie.

But after seeing the film many times since, I've come to identify it as a moment that symbolises a shift in the dynamics of this family, and especially between Jim and his father (Jim Backus). The way the camera moves ever so slightly like the scales of two prize-fighters, one of which has the upper hand. It's from this moment on that sets up the rest of Jim's story. How can he go back to the way it was before after what has happened now that his world has been shifted off of its axis?

It's a masterful shot in a masterful movie.

Read more "best shots" at The Film Experience.

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