Rebel Without a Cause appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.55:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Though not without some concerns, the transfer usually looked quite good.
The biggest issues related to sharpness. I noticed some moderate edge enhancement at times, and that occasionally gave the film a less defined appearance. The majority of the shots came across with good clarity, but these exceptions popped up often enough to create a negative impact. No problems with jagged edges or shimmering occurred, however, and print flaws were very minor for such an old film. I saw a couple of speckles and one or two instances of grit plus some light grain at times, but little that would cause me concern even if the defects appeared in a modern movie.
Colors mostly seemed solid. I thought some flesh tones appeared slightly pale and pink, but as a whole the hues were fairly deep and strong. Occasionally I thought they looked a bit messy, but most of the shots displayed good definition, and some were really positive.
Blacks varied. At times they were dark and tight, but other shots appeared bluish. Most of the blacks demonstrated good definition, though. Shadows worked acceptably well too. Occasionally they were a little too dense, but the low-light shots largely came across fine. I flip-flopped about whether to give this transfer a “B+” or a “B”. I went with the latter essentially due to the softness. The image simply lacked the definition I’d expect.
The film’s remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack seemed better than average for the era. The soundfield didn’t do a lot to spread the audio across the speakers, but the score benefited from the extra channels. Throughout the film, the music displayed very nice stereo separation and imaging. Some effects also appeared from the right and left side speakers at times, and they even showed some mildly-positive panning.
The surrounds seemed largely inactive. They provided light reinforcement of the music but virtually nothing else. Ultimately, the soundfield appeared unspectacular but was appropriate for a remix such as this.
Audio quality sounded fine for material of this age. Dialogue could be slightly thin and wan but displayed no signs of edginess or problems related to intelligibility. I should note that Rebel suffered from some terrible looping, as a lot of lines obviously came from the studio. Effects were similarly thin but came across as acceptably realistic, and even louder sounds showed no distortion. Music lacked much brightness, but the score seemed reasonably clear and distinct, and it showed fairly nice low end at times. The track lacked any noticeable hiss or noise. As a whole, the audio for Rebel was nothing extraordinary but it seemed to have held up well over the years.
How did the picture and sound quality of this new DVD compare to the original 1999 release? I thought both offered similar soundtracks but not identical visuals. To my surprise, I slightly preferred the transfer of the old disc. It looked a little sharper and more distinctive. It wasn’t a night and day difference, but I thought it offered the superior visuals.
In addition to the new transfer of the movie, this two-disc DVD includes extras not found on the prior release. On DVD One, we get the movie’s trailer as well as an audio commentary from biographer Douglas L. Rathgeb. He provides a running, screen-specific track that usually offers some good information. Rathgeb goes into notes about the cast and filmmakers, locations and visual design, the script and changes made to it, reshoots and the film’s original black and white scenes, improvisations, problems with the Production Code, issues connected to Dean’s death, and general production notes.
At his best, Rathgeb gets into the nitty-gritty of the film well. He digs into a lot of nice production elements and gives us a decent overview of things. Unfortunately, the track drags at times due to some dead air, and Rathgeb also tends to simply narrate the flick as it progresses. Nonetheless, there’s enough good content to make this commentary worthwhile.
Over on DVD Two, we start with a new documentary. Called Rebel Without a Cause: Defiant Innocents, this 36-minute and 25-second piece mixes movie clips, archival materials, and remarks from Rathgeb, James Dean’s friend William Bast, screenwriter Stewart Stern, Natalie Wood’s double Faye Nuell, and actors Beverly Long, Frank Mazzola, Corey Allen, Jack Grinnage, Dennis Hopper and Steffi Sidney. The program looks at the film’s connection to society of the early Fifties, the origins of the film and script development, various story topics, casting, characters, and the actors’ interactions, problems using Cinemascope and visual concepts, changing from black and white to color, shooting various sequences, improvisation and working with director Nicholas Ray, and the movie’s legacy.
The best parts of the show deal with the evolution of the script, as we get terrific insight into the flick’s background. Stern proves especially revealing when he notes the ways that his real life influenced the story and other influences. Plenty more valuable moments appear as well, and those flesh out “Innocents” to create a very informative and entertaining look at the production.
A “vintage documentary” entitled James Dean Remembered comes next. Created in 1974, it fills 66 minutes and 15 seconds with narration by Peter Lawford and comments from Sammy Davis Jr., Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Leonard Rosenman, and Steve Allen. “Remembered” covers Dean’s life. It alternates standard biographical notes with memories of Dean from the folks involved. Along with many movie clips, the latter elements dominate; most of the show focuses on the remarks made by the folks who knew him. At times these can become insightful. In particular, Rosenman lets us know a lot about the inner Dean. Some of the other statements seem quite odd, such as Mineo’s admission that he tried to use supernatural methods to contact Dean from beyond the grave!
The biographical side of things gets only minor discussion, and that creates a weakness to “Remembered”. Too many of the celebrity remarks about Dean remain superficial. Sure, it’s good to get personal observations about the actor, but these tend to stay on the surface and don’t really give us a terrific feel for the man. Highlights come from some early TV appearances by Dean, though we see too little of those and too much from his movies. The show ends up as a mostly unsatisfying mix of history and anecdotes.
16 Additional Scenes run a total of 23 minutes and three seconds. These come without audio, which limits their usefulness. Granted, a lot of them seem to fall closer to the category of “outtake” than of “deleted scene”, and they probably wouldn’t be very interesting with or without sound. Nonetheless, some appear more intriguing, and it becomes difficult to get much from those silent clips. Couldn’t the DVD have used subtitles to flesh out the sequences?
Next we get three segments from the Warner Bros. Presents TV series. These include some general information about Rebel plus interviews with a few principals. The first one talks with Natalie Wood and lasts seven minutes and 55 seconds, while the second features Jim Backus and runs five minutes and 45 seconds. The last one includes Dean and goes for seven minutes and 40 seconds.
Don’t mistake these for continual interviews. Especially in the case of the Wood piece, much of the footage looks at other areas of the film; the interviews can be quite minor. The Backus and Dean segments are longer, however, and in the case of the latter, quite spooky; I’ll leave the details for you to discover yourself, but Dean’s comments clearly enter the territory of “creepy” when viewed in retrospect. One note: the pre-interview parts of both the Backus and Dean clips are virtually identical; only the conversations themselves differ. In any case, I liked these pieces and thought they offered a very interesting look at the movie.
Finally, the DVD includes Screen Tests and Wardrobe Tests. The former lasts six minutes, 24 seconds and focuses on the interaction among Dean, Wood and Mineo. The “Wardrobe Tests” go for five minutes, two seconds. These show Dean and Corey Allen along with a mix of the gang members. We viewed excerpts from both during the “Defiant Innocents” documentary, but it’s good to get extended segments here.
Does this DVD lose any extras from the original DVD? Yes, but just a few. A good featurette called “Rediscovering a Rebel” gets the boot because “Defiant Innocents” and the other behind the scenes bits make it superfluous. We also drop some decent “Cast and Crew” entries for Dean, Wood and Ray as well as trailers for East of Eden and Giant.
Although it probably should seem pathetically dated, Rebel Without A Cause generally holds up very well despite its age The movie provides a solid look at the era’s youth culture and the problems faced by teens. Largely due to some excellent performances, the movie remains moving and convincing many decades later. The DVD offers above-average picture and sound plus some very good extras. Rebel Without A Cause is a fine movie and terrific DVD that merits your attention.
Should folks who own the original DVD “upgrade” to this new one? Yes, if they’re interested in supplements. I thought the old disc looked a little better than this one, and both presented similar audio, so I see no transfer-related reason to get the new release. However, it offers much stronger extras and is more satisfying in that regard. Even though I maintained a small preference for the original’s visuals, this is the superior package and the one for new fans to purchase.