Along with Elia Kazan's East of Eden, which was released six months earlier, Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause is best known for forging James Dean's legacy as a screen icon. Dean, Ray, writer Irving Shulman, and a cast of committed young stars came together in creating not only a blockbuster Hollywood production—immortalized in grand, full-color CinemaScope—but a cultural touchstone for an entire American postwar generation. Its impact on the American film-going public was practically inseparable from that of Dean's shocking death in a car accident, which occurred mere weeks before the film's release. Tragedy would also cut short the lives of the film's two co-stars—Sal Mineo, who was stabbed to death at the age of 37, and Natalie Wood, who drowned while on a boating trip at the age of 43.
The film's poster—which pictures a tousle-haired James Dean in blue jeans, white t-shirt, red windbreaker, smoking a cigarette, squinting—is one of the twentieth century's most indelible cultural icons of American masculinity. In shooting the film, Ray and cinematographer Ernest Haller used CinemaScope, a widescreen format that rendered scenes of adolescent rebellion with the grandiose visual sweep of a Western or a musical. Having made several action films and directed Johnny Guitar (1954) the year prior, a Western that subversively imagined Joan Crawford as its cowboy hero, Ray was already a master genre stylist and a professional at choreographing thrilling scenes of spectacular violence. Rebel Without A Cause's three major set-pieces—a knife fight, a death-defying race, and a tense shoot-out—all represent kinetic, explosive scenes of tragic male conflict, which the film's fathers and father figures are powerless to stop.
Unlike the kind of emotionally flat, tough-talking masculinity represented onscreen previously in Westerns and crime dramas by stars like John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart, Rebel Without A Cause offered a less conventional masculine ideal rooted, at least in part, in virtues of sensitivity, vulnerability, and emotional understanding. James Dean's performance as Jim Stark helped usher in a new model for American postwar masculinity, along with other "method" actors of his generation like Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, all of whom tempered their pride and aggressiveness with sensitivity and vulnerability. What sets Jim Stark apart from previous archetypes of American masculinity is his sturdy moral compass and evolved emotional capability. Ray's compositions often show Jim to be at a combative angle with the world around him, especially in scenes with his family. Jim's red windbreaker blazes like a flag throughout the film and its promotional materials as an iconic symbol of what the film's script is ultimately about: Jim's own righteous yet rebellious quest to express his feelings about what being an honorable man is, or should be.
The film weaves traditional and subversive elements into its plot, and was banned in New Zealand and rated 'X' in the United Kingdom for its depictions of teenage delinquency and violence. Ironically, in a film about rebels and rebelling, Jim's problem with his family initially seems like it is that they are not traditional enough—Jim is despondent that his passive father has ceded patriarchal authority of the household to his imperious mother and grandmother, and wishes his father would "knock [her] cold," once. Later, it becomes apparent that the problem at the center of the Stark household is their collective pettiness, bickering, and refusal to address Jim's problems.
Rebel Without a Cause is also notable for the strongly implied but never explicit homoerotic desire, which courses through scenes of Jim and Buzz play-fighting and competing. Buzz's fiery death and Plato's murder by police, not to mention Jim's brutal strangling of his father and a bloody knife fight, made Rebel Without A Cause an unusually violent film for its day, though it still attracted a sizable female audience due to Dean's star image.
Beyond inventing a new archetype for American masculinity, Rebel Without a Cause has also been a major influence on film history. Robert Altman's 1982 film Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean chronicles a fictional "Disciples of Dean" all-female fan club, lampooning the kinds of societies that emerged after Dean's death. The film is currently listed at 59 in the American Film Institute's 100 Greatest American Movies list.