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Groundbreaker “Rebel Without a Cause” wins on 4K


James Dean plays high school student Jim Stark, who’s alienated from his parents Frank (Jim Backus) and Carol (Ann Doren) Stark. The original 35mm camera negative survived for this scene.

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4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, Digital copy; 1955, rated PG-13 for violence and thematic elements; streaming via Amazon Prime Video, Apple/iTunes (4K), Movies Anywhere (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube (4K)

Best extra: Commentary by author Douglas L. Rathgeb

IT’S HARD to watch this nearly 70-year-old movie and not think of the sad coincidence regarding the tragic, premature deaths of all three of its lead actors. With that in mind, the performances of James Dean, Sal Mineo, and Natalie Wood only seem more poignant.

“Rebel Without a Cause” was the second of the three starring feature roles in Dean’s brief career, and his portrayal of Jim Stark has remained his most iconic. Jim is the new kid at his California high school, and he’s immediately targeted by a gang of “delinquents.” We meet him and the other two leads in the juvenile crime section of a police department, where they’ve each been hauled in late one night. Jim’s been arrested for public drunkenness; Judy (Wood), for wandering the streets alone; and “Plato” (Mineo) because he shot and killed his neighbor’s puppies. All three feel alienated from their parents: Plato’s are perennially out of town, so he’s looked after by the family housekeeper (Marietta Canty). Judy’s father (William Hopper) can’t deal with her budding sexuality, and her mother seems clueless about the situation; while Jim’s father (Jim Backus) is a weak man, controlled by his wife (Ann Doran), a woman who keeps moving the family to avoid dealing with situations in which her son gets into trouble. Jim, Judy, and Plato eventually meet and form their own little unit, a pseudo-family, bound by their sad home lives as well as their conflicts with the rest of the world.

What made “Rebel” especially unique for its time was the story being told from the perspective of the young people, as well as the depiction of teenagers from upper-middle-class families acting wild and breaking the law.

Late Night at the Police Station

(1) “Rebel Without a Cause” premiered in New York City on October 27, 1955. (2) The police find teenager Jim Stark drunk and taken to the police station. (3&4) Natalie Wood plays 16-year-old Judy, who’s questioned by Juvenile Division Counselor Ray Framek (Edward Platt) for wandering the streets at 1 a.m. (5&6) Jim’s parents and grandmother (Virginia Brissac) arrive at the station and a family argument ensues and he cries out, “You’re tearing me apart!” (7) Sal Mineo plays troubled teen John Crawford, nicknamed “Plato,” who’s questioned for shooting and killing his neighbor’s puppies.

Director Nicholas Ray (“In a Lonely Place,” “Flying Leathernecks”)who conceived the plot, knew this was occurring in America, but in movies, the delinquents usually tended to come from poor or working-class backgrounds. The prominent theme of absent or ineffectual parents, particularly fathers, was also vital to Ray’s conception for the film. Stewart Stern, the screenwriter, illustrated that theme with Jim’s attachment to a caring policeman/father figure (Edward Platt), and Plato’s saying he wished Jim were his father.


The majority of the 111-minute running time “Rebel” looks very good, sourced from Warner’s 4K restoration, with HDR10 grading and Dolby Vision on digital platforms. The studio scanned the original CinemaScope 35mm camera negative (2.55:1 aspect ratio) and the best-surviving elements over a decade ago in 4K, to assemble this groundbreaking story of moral turmoil. Overall, the original negative clarity dominates the visuals, far surpassing the 1080p disc, except during the knife fight sequence overlooking Los Angeles, where it seems a second-generation master was used, more likely the best source available as the sharpness drops a notch. Also, some softness is evident on the frame edges from the super widescreen anamorphic lens, a common issue with early CinemaScope films. Still, wonderful wide shots are composed by cinematographer Ernest Haller (“Gone with the Wind,” “Mildred Pierce”), while a fine wash of natural film grain permeates frames for that cinematic look.

The HDR grading has corrected the excess red tint found on the actors faces in the Blu-ray edition. Here the facial toning is natural and realistic while providing excellent color saturation – with Warner’s own 1950s photo-chemical process (WarnerColor) – especially with Dean’s famous red jacket and blue jeans. The contrast levels are also more dynamic with highlights to controlled and deep shadows, during the numerous night scenes.

The HDR10 peak brightness hits 2105 nits and averages 147 nits, while the video bitrate runs in the low 50 Megabits per second range encoded on a 66-gigabit disc.

First Day: Dawson High School

(1&2) Before school starts Jim accidentally steps onto the school’s insignia and is harassed by a fellow student. (3&4) That afternoon a junior and senior field trip was offered to the Los Angeles Griffith Observatory. Judy’s boyfriend Buzz Gunderson (Corey Allen) punctures a tire on Jim’s car after the lecture, which leads to a knife fight. Much of this scene was sourced from second-generation film elements, which causes the clarity to drop a notch.


Warner has upgraded the six-channel DTS-HD on the Blu-ray to an eight-channel Dolby Atmos. Dean’s wailing police siren noise during the opening now envelopes the theater room even more. The upgraded track is upconverted from the original 4-track stereo mix found on magnetic prints and provides a new restored 2.0 Mono DTS-HD track sourced from original theatrical optical prints.

The dialogue-driven story is still front and center while Leonard Rosenman’s (“Bound for Glory,” “Barry Lyndon”) orchestrated score with strings and brass fills the room – especially during the “Main Title,” “Knife Fight” and “Love Theme.”


All the bonus features are from previous editions and are still worth a look on the enclosed Blu-ray, a restamping of the decade-old disc. Included are two documentaries, one of which was made in the 1970s and contains interviews with Wood, Mineo, and Rock Hudson; an interview with Dennis Hopper; deleted scenes; screen and wardrobe tests; and the commentary.

Douglas L. Rathgeb the author of “The Making of Rebel Without a Cause,” offers plenty of interesting trivia during the commentary, when he’s not uselessly describing the action on the screen. He points out the places in which Dean improvised “bits of business,” such as the opening scene with Jim sprawled out in the street, where he covers a toy monkey with a piece of newspaper, as though it’s a blanket, foreshadowing a heartbreaking moment later in the film. Rathgeb notes that Stern spent time at a real police station’s juvenile hall, to gather ideas for the screenplay. We learn that some of Mineo’s dialogue had to be dubbed, due to his heavy Bronx accent; and that the fictional Dawson High School exteriors were shot at Santa Monica High.

The Chickie Run

(1-4) Later that night, Jim and Buzz drive stolen cars in a round of Chickie Run, at the Millertown Bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Judy stands in the middle and signals the start. The first guy to jump out will be declared the “chickie.”

Rathgeb points out that the first three days of filming were done in black and white, and then switched to color and the super widescreen Cinemascope, a result of the studio’s realization of James Dean’s phenomenal growing popularity. Rathgeb says that, at first, Ray wasn’t sure he could fill all the space available with the widescreen format, but added that Griffith Observatory, where the film’s climax occurs, was “made for” it. In the knife fight between Jim and Buzz (Corey Allen), which Ray choreographed, the knives used had been confiscated from teens at a police station, and even though the blades were dulled, the actors wore chest protectors.

Dean and Nick Adams who, in addition to Hopper, played members of the high school gang, had previously been in a Coca-Cola commercial together which, coincidentally, was shot at the Griffith Observatory. The two, says Rathgeb, used to fool around between takes, jokingly pretending to be Marlon Brando and Elia Kazan. Dean was studying to be a director at the time and had many ideas about the shoot, which he shared with Ray, even suggesting camera angles.

Rathgeb explains that the abandoned mansion, where some scenes take place, had belonged to J. Paul Getty, and had previously been used in the film noir classic “Sunset Boulevard.” Mineo and Wood were still minors during the shoot, so they weren’t permitted to work more than a set number of hours each day, which caused some problems for the production. Stern, says Rathgeb, envisioned the film as a sort of “Greek tragedy,” and so he wanted it to span 24 hours.

The final shot, of the Griffith Observatory in the morning, shows a man, presumably a presenter at the planetarium, walking toward the entrance. That’s Ray himself. After the shoot, Dean remarked that he’d never be able to put as much of himself into a film again. Sadly, he only made one more – “Giant” – before he was killed in a car crash, at the age of 24.

— Peggy Earle and Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer

(1) Judy comes home upset from what happened at the cliffs and hugs her little brother. (2) Jim uses the cold milk to cool his face after the Chickie Run. (3) Buzz’s friends shakedown Plato for Jim’s address. (4-6) Plato takes Jim and Judy to his favorite hangout - an abandoned mansion near the Griffith Observatory. Buzz’s buddies find the trio and Plato starts shooting. (7-11) The police discover Plato, Jim, and Judy and Counselor Ray Framek drives Jim’s parents to the scene, and more gunshots are fired. Most of the final sequence was sourced from the camera negative.


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