Nicholas Ray made movies for little more than a decade, but his films are among the most incisive, bizarre, and intelligent of the 1950s. A believer that great directors leave distinctive signatures on their work, Ray's eye for setting, color, and kinetic action merged with a socially conscious interest in personal psychology to reveal a darkness at odds with "normalcy" in such films as In a Lonely Place (1950), Johnny Guitar (1954), and his most famous film, Rebel Without a Cause (1955).
Rebel Without a Cause is most remembered for being the film that best presented the talent of young cult star James Dean, shortly before his premature death in 1955. It also served as a springboard for the acting careers of its two other stars; Natalie Wood (in her first non-child role) and unknown actor Sal Mineo. (Unfortunately, all three leading stars suffered death under unusual and tragic circumstances later on).
It is a film that sympathetically views rebellious, American, restless, misunderstood, middle-class youth. The screenplay (by Stewart Stern, from an adaptation by Irving Shulman of an original storyline Ray) was based on an actual case study of a delinquent, teenage psychopath. The story provides a rich and stylised (and now partly outdated) look at the world of the mid-1950s from the perspective of the main adolescent character. The colourful wide-screen Cinemascope feature affords a classic, glamorised portrait of three troubled, frustrated, anguished, and identity-seeking teenagers - all outsiders alienated from the world and values of parents and adults.
The reactionary film is considered Hollywood's best 50's film of rebellious and restless youth that spawned many other lesser teen exploitation films in its wake (another film that caused the same sensation was Marlon Brando in the earlier film The Wild One (1953)). It has been surmised that Sal Mineo's teen-aged character in the film was gay and troubled by typical problems of in-the-closet homosexuals in the 50s - the film disguises his problems, but hints at the possibility that he is seeking out Dean.