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Behind wooden-framed, glass partitions off the lobby, two other middle-class, misunderstood, alienated teenagers are also being held for their anti-social behavior: a pretty, unloved girl named Judy (Natalie Wood) in a bright-red outfit with matching red lipstick, and an emotionally-disturbed, anguished 'orphan' named John ('Plato') (Sal Mineo). I mean, maybe he doesn't mean it, but he acts like he does. We were gonna celebrate Easter and we were gonna catch a double bill. So I put on my new dress and I came out, and he grabbed my face and he started rubbing off all the lipstick. She cries: "I'll never get close to anybody."Jim drunkenly imitates and mimics the sound of a passing police siren, almost a cry for help in itself, while sprawled on an elevated shoeshine chair in the lobby of the station. With bottled-up frustration, Jim first lightly touches, kicks, and then boxes bare-knuckled with a large wooden desk, venting his pent-up crazed energy. Jim: (after spying on his parents through the round slot in the door) Aw, she eats him alive and he takes it. He joins next-door neighbor Judy on her way to school, recognizing her from the night before in the police station. [The color red is significant - it is associated with Judy's wildness - her trampy dress, her lipstick, etc. Another extremely troubled teenager, John "Plato" Crawford (Sal Mineo), who has been brought to the station by his ultimately powerless black nanny (Marietta Canty), is offered Jim's dark brown jacket to keep warm, but refuses it (a foreshadowing of a different response in a similar scene in the film's climax.) [The paternal act of kindness is typically rejected by the hurt boy.] Judy is informed that her mother rather than her father will be coming shortly to pick her up, and she blurts out: "My mother! You said you'd call my father." As she leaves, Judy inadvertently leaves behind a small, flower-decorated compact case. Anguished, Jim believes that he causes his parents to continually move from town to town to protect him. Jim: Called me 'chicken.' Ray: And your folks didn't understand. In an awkward courtship dialogue, Jim tries to make conversation with her. In the film, Dean formed a friendly bond with the other two characters: Wood as confused teenaged Judy, and Mineo as a strange, adoring boy named Plato - the film's sacrificial lamb by film's end. As a newcomer to the school, he is warned about stepping on Dawson High School's insignia on the school's steps and eyed suspiciously by many of the students.The reactionary film is considered Hollywood's best 50's film of rebellious and restless youth (and sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll) that spawned many other lesser teen exploitation films in its wake.
The 2005 book, Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making Rebel Without a Cause by authors Lawrence Frascella and Al Weisel, documented many of the gossipy rumors and truths about the film's making and its principals, including such facts as: 43 year-old director Nicholas Ray and youthful upcoming actor Dennis Hopper were both sleeping with 16 year-old Natalie Wood, the choreographed on-screen knife fight (with real knives) drew actual blood, Natalie Wood was replaced by an extra for the long-shot view of her signaling the start of the chickie-run, and all three iconic red jackets used by James Dean in the film have disappeared.
Behind the credits, the film opens in Los Angeles with one of the three teenagers, the major character, lone troublemaker Jim Stark (James Dean) seen tipsy-drunk in the darkness, lying contentedly (in a fetal position) on a sidewalk curb with a beatific smile on his face.