Nicholas Ray

Rebel Without a Cause
Rebel Without a Cause

“You’re tearing me apart!”

The line–the plaintive cry–is synonymous with Rebel Without A Cause and hence with Nicholas Ray. I hope to say more about Ray as I word through some of his films this summer, but I got a sneak peek when my DVD rental service inadvertently sent me some films out of order and I got to screen Rebel back to back with The Flying Leathernecks.

At a first, and maybe a second, glance, the films couldn’t seem more different. One stars the James Dean as a tormented and emotionally expressive youth. The other stars John Wayne as a stoic icon of military discipline. One takes its title from a psychological manifesto of teen rebellion. The other is politically and socially conservative in the way of most military tales: championing the values of the culture rather than the counter-culture.

Consider the following exchange between Captain Carl “Griff” Griffin (Robert Ryan) and his men, as he hears them grumbling about one of the commands of Major Daniel Kirby (Wayne).

I don’t want to hear any more of this kind of griping. Does everyone tune me in loud and clear?

–Speaking for one, I’m receiving ya loud and clear.

–Well, maybe after the heat’s off a little, the major’ll get soft hearted…

–Soft hearted? Don’t you know a heart is strictly non-regulation equipment for a professional soldier? And Kirby’s a professional solider.

You interest me no end…

–Well you know I didn’t mean you in that crack Griff, I know you…

Listen some guys take a look at the world when their young and they don’t like what they see. And they realize that some of us are going to have to fight for the rest of us from here on in. I’m a professional soldier, and I don’t mind saying, I’m kind of proud of it.

Who is Ryan defending Kirby to? His men or the audience?

Griff is torn apart, and were I more confident in my readings of the psychosexual tone conveyed by clips from other Ray films I’ve seen, I might even be willing to recast The Flying Leathernecks as a family drama, with Ryan and Wayne the dueling parents, the former clearly more troubled with his own maternal, nurturing instincts than his commanders stoic disregard for the well being of their extended family.

It’s the comment about youth, though, that grabs my attention. It is suggested that everyone looks at the world when they are young and many don’t like what they see. There is something peculiar, however, in the refusal to fight.

These men are fighting, though. So is this speech directed at the men themselves, or at the youth audience who would find their disaffection more favorably portrayed four years later in Rebel? Griff has his own disagreements with Kirby, so is it the grumbling he dislikes?

In this contrast, Dean (in Rebel) is a surrogate for the audience while Griff is more of a surrogate for Ray himself. If there is some ambivalence, some internal reservations or conflict about the rebelliousness he hears expressed, it doesn’t seem as prevalent in Rebel, a film that strikes me as largely sympathetic with the teen protagonists. (It is hard not to share Dean’s disgust at his parents’ response to the confession that he was complicit in the accidental death of another young man while playing chicken.)

Then again, according to an interview with Penelope Houston and John Gillet (from Sight and Sound), Ray gave James Dean broad license to improvise, himself playing the impotent and cautious father during rehearsals (327). In the same interview, Ray cites Rebel as his best film and dismisses The Flying Leathernecks as a film he did not expect much from (328). Perhaps then, if Griff is Ray, the ambivalence of the character is channelling a different object of frustration from his auteur. Houston and Gillet say Ray felt he made a mistake in naming the drug in Bigger Than Life, thus “involving his audience in the pros and cons of one particular medical discussion, rather than […] the fallacy of believing in any magical solution to a human problem” (326).

It is this dismissal of the particular in favor of the social that gives me pause. Good drama can and does embed drama in and extract it from the particular. Absent acting as a pointer to a broader sociological rift (the title to Rebel refers to a sociology textbook, not a novel), the conflicts in Rebel Without a Cause lack (at least for me) the dramatic weight as those in Leathernecks. Maybe that’s not a fair comparison, since the war setting gives moral heft and tragic signifance to all its particulars. Plus, if the film’s popularity is any indication, a fair number of particular youths saw their particular lives expressed anagogically in Rebel, so it is not as though that film’s power comes from spectacle alone and not recognition.

Conflict in Ray’s films seems internal. There are conflicts between characters, but it is the conflicts within them that carry the most tension. It will be interesting, in watching other Ray films, to contemplate what sorts of pressures from without are able to tear the various characters apart, and more interesting still to contemplate which (if any) are able to hold it together.

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