The films of Nicholas Ray promise delicious surprises. They appear to adorn the shiny cloak of Hollywood studio production, only to shred those genre conventions to pieces by the end. Johnny Guitar (1954) is a weird western. Rebel Without a Cause (1955) is a weird teen film. Bigger than Life (1956) is a weird social problem movie. Yet these three features, all filmed in glorious Technicolor, string together a critique of the Americana ideal. Their threads are of same cloth, much like the outfit that repeatedly appears throughout these films: the iconic red shirt/jacket and blue jeans. Dressed in clashing warm and cool tones, Vienna (Joan Crawford) in Johnny Guitar, Jim Stark (James Dean) in Rebel Without a Cause and Richie (Christopher Olsen) in Bigger than Life see their emotions running hot and cold as they wrestle with contradictory forces.
Vienna, Jim and Richie are all outsiders. In Johnny Guitar, Vienna comes to a new town and tries to maintain her saloon despite the hostile attitudes from the locals. Rebel Without a Cause exists within a similar western narrative, only this time, the frontier is moved inside a Los Angeles high school. Jim is a troubled teenager riding into unfamiliar territory-or rather being dragged along by his parents-and already he is disliked by the school’s teen gang. Vienna and Jim are both loners with a dubious past, yet their inherent codes of principle make them strangely heroic. They wear their hearts on their sleeves, quite literally, for the crimson shade of their shirts hints at volcanic emotions hidden underneath the aloof facade.
Richie in Bigger than Life is also an outcast in his own way. As the film largely deals with the grownups, as a kid, Richie is completely shut out from his father’s drug problems. In the same fashion as Jim in Rebel Without a Cause, Richie is constantly filmed standing between his parents, part of the family portrait but oblivious to their internal world. Especially during the sequence where the family goes to an expensive clothing store, Richie is pushed to the far left of the frame while his father erratically makes impulsive purchases. The kid is aware of the unusual situation, yet he cannot express his concerns to anyone. Richie and Jim’s red shirts suggest a desire to be noticed, or to rebel again the subdued, plain colors worn by their parents. They want to be seen and they want to be heard.
The three characters consequently put on their red shirts and blue jeans during crucial, decisive moments. Vienna at one point in Johnny Guitar narrowly escapes being lynched by the locals. She quickly takes off her lacy white dress and changes to the red and blue outfit while simultaneously deciding that she will face her main opponent, Emma, instead of running away. Similarly, Jim in Rebel Without a Cause smoothes out his red jacket as he steps out of the comfort of his suburban house, ready to take part in a deadly car race with the gang, all in the name of honor. The outfit signifies a turn in term of plot as well as characterization. The characters substitute their neutral toned clothing for decidedly bolder looking attires, as if they have outgrown their social constraints.
Curiously enough, in Bigger than Life, Richie alternately wears Vienna and Jim’s costumes. While shopping with his family, Richie is first dressed in the red jacket/white t-shirt/blue jeans look made famous by James Dean’s character. In a later scene, when the poor kid is psychologically tortured by his crazed father who forces him to finish homework before eating dinner, Richie is seen in Vienna’s red shirt and blue jeans combo. Like his older counterparts, Richie also comes to a significant understanding; despite his father’s good nature, he has turned manic due to the side effects of the drug that keeps him alive. Suddenly, Richie becomes a near adult. He ceases to be an onlooker on his parents’ affairs. Not only does he gain insights into familial problems, he is actually more self-aware than his father is.
Throughout the three films, the red and blue attire functions as a Brechtian switch. Its appearance is conspicuous as the bright colors contrast against the yellowish western landscape in Johnny Guitar, the bleak walls of Los Angeles houses in Rebel Without a Cause or the dimply lit, claustrophobic setting of the family home in Bigger than Life. Underneath these uniformed surfaces and sceneries, something new and strange is bubbling. Considering that Rebel Without a Cause and Bigger than Life turn the ideal of the middle class 1950s family completely upside down, it would be difficult to look at Jim and Richie’s outfits and not think of them as an allusion to the red, white and blue American flag. In the same vein, Johnny Guitar, written by a Hollywood blacklisted writer and revolving around a woman terrorized by an entire town, seems to link Vienna’ red shirt to the Communist scare that cast a dark cloud over 1950s American films. More significantly, the age of the characters wearing this iconic outfit is directly disproportional to the order of the films’ release years. They keep getting younger and younger, from middle-aged Vienna to pre-puberty Richie, a commentary on the country’s arrested development. Nicholas Ray’s Technicolor films indeed refuse to exist in a black-and-white world. Their characters, pushed aside misfits dressed in red, white and blue, demand the audience to look at America’s moral realities.