It’s almost blasphemy to say it, but when I watch Rebel Without A Cause now I tend to think that the best thing about the film isn’t James Dean at all, but Sal Mineo. To me, Mineo’s performance comes across as considerably more honest and real than Dean’s does. Of course, part of this is to do with a preference of acting styles. Dean uses a kind of affected, jittery performance, but is this really the way that teens behaved in the mid-1950s? I will also be honest and say that I don’t think Rebel is the best of the juvenile delinquent cycle. While all of that cycle are, to some extent, exaggerations of issues and fears in America at that time, Rebel seems to veer into pure melodrama just that little bit too often. The chicken run, the abandoned mansion, the almost caricature parents of Dean’s character, and the dramatic finale: is this a work of genius, or a teenaged soap opera? It all just seems too much, no matter how much the film is loved. One can only wonder how we would view the film today had Dean’s career not have ended in such a tragic fashion. Would we still view it as one of the great all-time classics, or as an early Dean film in which he showed promise as an actor?
Mineo went on to play similar roles in other films in the juvenile delinquent cycle, most notably The Young Don’t Cry, Crime in the Streets and, perhaps best of all, Dino. Sal Mineo had already starred in the live TV play of the same name in 1956 and won an Emmy award for his efforts. The big screen version came one year later and finds Mineo in exceptional form. The film tells the story of a young man, Dino, who arrives home after spending three and a half years doing time for his part in the murder of a night watchman when he was thirteen. We learn that his family life is problematic and that Dino has as much trouble liking himself as others do liking him. While he has been away, his brother has been involved with a gang and Dino is persuaded to be involved in their next “job”, the robbery of a gas station. Meanwhile, Dino is persuaded to start seeing a psychiatrist and he starts to come to terms with his life.
Dino’s performance comes across as far more natural than that of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, and yet still manages to portray an angry, jittery, angsty teenager. But there is more (or, rather, less) going on here. Perhaps because of it’s TV origins, the whole film seems a far more natural and realistic film than Rebel ever was. There are no big set-pieces here, and even the big finale never actually arrives in the way it is expected. This is all a much more low-key affair than Rebel, The Blackboard Jungle or even Crime in the Streets. Dino’s Father is shown to be violent towards his son, but at the same time never falls into the caricature of the Father in Rebel who is so hen-pecked by his wife that he wears a pinny as he clears up.
That said, there are some great moments here, most notably during one of Dino’s sessions with the “skull doctor” when he eventually opens up about his Father and family life. Mineo is simply stunning here in a lengthy monologue filmed mostly in long takes. It’s a masterclass in acting, and extremely moving, but one that is rarely seen, for Dino has yet to make it to home video during the DVD age, and never graces our TV sets. Ironically, the TV programme is available on DVD, but not the film. The version I viewed recently comes from a less-than-stellar VHS issue from back in 1998.
It seems a little unclear as to how or why Mineo vanished off the radar. In 1959 he played jazz drummer Gene Krupa in a Hollywood biopic and then was Oscar-nominated for his supporting role in Exodus, but his period of huge stardom was all but over. He had a small role in the war epic The Longest Day and then appeared in John Ford’s film Cheyenne Autumn, but the really lucrative roles never really came his way after Exodus. He continued to put in fine performances when they came his way, however, most notably in the slightly sleazy thriller Who Killed Teddy Bear from 1965, in which he starred opposite Juliet Prowse. Sadly, Mineo is most remembered today for just Rebel Without A Cause and his tragic murder at the age of 37. But not even his tragic end seemed to bring Mineo and his work back into the public conscience. This is a real pity, for he was a fine, sympathetic and his films, particularly those of the 1950s, deserve to be much better known than they are today.