You say to yourself, upon watching a Rebel Without a Cause after so many years, this time around with your middle school sons, that there is no better way to convey coolness and compassion than those two scenes with Jim Stark (James Dean) and Plato (Sal Mineo): the one at the beginning inside the police station, the other one near the end outside the observatory.
Yes, prior to renting it, you wondered if a film with a title including the word "rebel" was maybe not a good idea: as if there was not enough rebellion going on at the home front! As if it was not crazy to ask for more trouble!
All through the film you are enthralled with the charged generational drama, the high school angst and pressure, the romance, the oedipal triangle, the overall air of alienation; you are reminded of what a powerful work of art it is, of how amazing Nicolas Ray is as a director, of how moving is the acting. And yet, as you watch the drama unfold through your sons' eyes, you focus, above all, on two specific scenes:
At the beginning of the film, shortly after moving to Los Angeles with his parents, Jim is brought into the police station for public drunkenness. It is at the station that the three main characters are presented: Jim, Plato and Judy (Natalie Wood). There, he befriends Plato; in the back and forth between rooms of anger and desolation, the one action that catches your attention is when Jim takes off his suit jacket and places it over Plato in a simple gesture of emotional solidarity.
And then, near the end of the film, the climatic scene when Plato hides in the observatory as he is besieged by the police. Jim and Judy follow him inside where Jim convinces Plato to lend him the gun, and then removes the ammunition magazine. When Plato steps out of the observatory, he becomes agitated at the sight of the police and charges forward; he is fatally shot by a police officer as Jim yells to the police that he had removed the bullets. Plato is wearing Jim's red jacket at the time, which makes Jim's parents think at first that it was Jim who was shot.
In the first scene it was the suit jacket; now, it is the red jacket, the famous red James Dean jacket immortalized in millions of posters and pictures.
In both instances, you are touched by the beauty and moral depth of a simple act of placing a jacket over another person, and how it simultaneously conveys coolness and compassion; in the midst of hundreds of parenting articles and books, of the reams of data and so forth you go for instruction, those two images stand out and say something you desire for your sons, a way of being you wish to pass on.
And you think, now, if only your 11 year-old son would stop losing his jacket at school every day, maybe he would be able to put this valuable lesson into practice.