Rebel Without A Cause Ending Explained: The Immortal James Dean

James Dean's significance as an icon — so potent that he's apparently being resurrected by CGI in an upcoming film – goes far beyond the three film performances he delivered. His is the first name that comes to mind when one thinks of adolescent cool and alienation. It's hard to separate him from his screen persona, just as it's hard to separate him from the tragic circumstances around his death at 24, driving fast down a California freeway. Just a month later, the movie that would solidify his legend came out: 1955's "Rebel Without a Cause," only his second starring role.

The movie's title came from a largely unrelated nonfiction book about teenage sociopathy, and its story came from director Nicholas Ray, who wrote a 17-page outline in one night, according to writer Lawrence Frascella. Focusing on three sympathetic, but damaged, adolescents –- Jim, Judy, and Plato (Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo) -– it moves from one night to the next night, almost theatrical as its characters grow closer from their circumstances. The three may be delinquents who flirt with violence, but the movie is told squarely from their point of view. It's the farthest thing imaginable from a moral panic movie.

Trio of delinquents

Dean's vulnerability and raw, expressive physicality is on full display in the opening shot of "Rebel," as Jim lays passed out on a street, moaning to nothing. When he's taken to jail, we get a glimpse at the troubles of the other two teens: parent-less Plato's killing of puppies or Judy's strained, unsettling relationship with her father, who calls her a tramp and looks at her like she's "the ugliest thing in the world." The movie doesn't underline why these characters act out, but it clearly demonstrates that none of them have good home lives.

Jim is the new kid in town, and he walks to his first day of school the next day, clad in his iconic red jacket (which would become the standard association with James Dean in pop culture). Judy rejects his offer for a ride: her lot is a group of teenage hoodlums, led by Buzz Gunderson (Corey Allen), who immediately forms a rivalry with Jim. Plato, on the other hand, is starstruck by the new arrival, and Mineo plays him in such a way that he was called "film's first gay teenager" (via Queer Portraits).

In "Rebel," teen melodrama is heightened to the point of absurdity, but directed with the utmost seriousness. The colorful thrills of a planetarium field trip provide the backdrop for frank discussions between Jim and Plato, who explains Jim's social standing while the depths of the cosmos reflect both his aggression and his loneliness.

Buzz and Jim

The romantic rivalry between Buzz and Jim explodes into a larger study of teen masculinity, of the use of violence in ensuring pride. Immediately outside of the planetarium, the two engage in a knife fight. Jim wins, knocking the knife out of Buzz's hand and thrusting his head over the side of the observatory overlooking the valley. The tension subsides for just a minute after, right before Buzz gets Jim to agree to do "some car tricks" later that night.

The knife fight and the "chicken run" may feel artificial, but they speak to real teen male anxieties, the danger of securing a reputation in a hostile environment. Since Buzz and Jim are both delinquents, there's no moral character, nobody to call for ceasefire. There's only the conflict, which continues to boil until there's a casualty.

The chicken run scene is remarkably suspenseful, as the two teens drive fast to the edge of a cliff. The loser is the one who leaves his car first. As Buzz gets his jacket looped with his door latch, Jim rolls out of his car, and Buzz careens to his death. The cops come, and the kids disperse. In the fallout, Jim, Judy and Plato effectively go on the run, but not before Jim explains what happened to his constantly-fighting parents. Jim's push for his father to stand up for him gives Dean yet another heartrending, iconic cinematic moment, but it turns into another violent altercation.

Dying young

The three teens end up at an abandoned mansion that only Plato, the most innocent of the three, knows about. They begin to role play, giving a fascinating glimpse into their perception of adulthood. As Plato falls asleep, finally at some peace, his two new friends explore the mansion on their own, and their romance grows.

Buzz' gang locates the mansion and invades it, leading to Plato shooting somebody. As Jim returns to restrain him, Plato grows increasingly hysterical and upset at the prospect of Jim abandoning him like his father did. He ends up in a protracted standoff with the police, only briefly calmed by Jim offering his jacket in exchange for the gun. Jim removes the bullets, but Plato leaves the mansion with the gun, and the police shoot him.

Humphrey Bogart would say of James Dean that he "died at the right time,=" (via American Legends) – that is, that he'd never be able to live up to publicity behind him if he'd stayed around longer. His death just before the release of "Rebel Without a Cause" adds another layer of tragedy to the movie's ending. To watch Jim tenderly caress the body of his dead friend, haunted by the senselessness of the violence, it's hard not to think of Dean's own collision. 

"Rebel Without a Cause" is deeply concerned with the teenage sense of immortality and risk-taking, the justifications of recklessness. In being the definitive cinematic text on that behavior, it made Dean a legend.