Color Psychology in Film

Psychology of color in Rebel without a Cause Nicholas Ray’s rendition of Rebel without a Cause is a meld of Western culture and color psychology beyond its time of technological restrictions in the 1950s. He creates this within a visual urban world that is easily recognized as a adolescent clash of intentions, contradictory stringent societal values, and fractured generation gap where he subconsciously suggests we should sympathize. This was the first film to really expose the issues of rebellious youths of that time. It gave these youths an icon to represent their voice and a sympathetic following.

The composition of the scenes makes it a masterpiece and begins with the opening scene where the lines in the walls force our eye down onto Judy. In each of the introductions to Judy, Jim and Plato the lines of the walls direct our eye to the character we should be focusing on with a strict composition. Other films of the 1950s seem to be flat and less defined with how they portray deep space. Nicholas Ray seems plunges us into their emotional turmoil with strict triangular composition. The lines of the walls converge right at the point of focus in every scene, creating a deep space that is explore-able and visually stimulating. Judy is wearing all red in the opening scene and has vibrant red lipstick emphasizing the expressions on her face. This creates a dramatic setting for the movie. We expect to be surprised from this point forward, to see action, and the setting for a dramatic struggle is constructed. The bright color paired with the muted walls behind her and the subject matter of their conversation immediately captures our. Red is a masculine color considered “eccentric, active, offensive, aggressive, autonomous and competitive.” That makes it “expressive of desire, domination and sexuality.” (Color and Meaning by John Gage pg. 32)

The psychological association of blood and fire with red is also a cultural factor. The Chinese used red in their artwork during the Han Dynasty, however it means something completely different in the United States. During the 1950s there was a struggle against communism and was represented by a red star. Nicholas Ray had associations with the communist party. On a psychological level red lighting makes our “bodies secrete more adrenaline, increasing our blood pressure and our rate of breathing and actually raising our temperature slightly.” (Color by Paul Zelanski and Mary Pat Fisher pg. 28) The red seems to represent something different for each character wearing it. The association with red stop signs staples the film with an American touch. Our eye flows through the scenes and stops on the main character. In other scenes it is used as a highlight for action and movement. Warm colors also appear closer than cool colors. (The Visual Story by Bruce Block pg.50) This draws Judy closer to us and creates a stirring (aggravating) feeling within the viewer that we can easily relate to. I felt as though the director was using red to draw Judy’s closer to us in the scene, making her feel close to the screen and then feel her emotional turmoil through the expressions on her face. He forces us to experience her pain and doesn’t allow our eye to wander. The red jacket seems to symbolize the three characters journey through their issues with their families, and whoever is wearing the red jacket is at the height of his or her personal emotional turmoil. Our eye is strategically drawn to them by the color in the climax of events that encircle that character. At first it is Judy crying because her father called her a whore, then Jim racing the other character to the cliff in a game of chicken, and finally Plato getting shot. The red seems to expose the character and symbolize the blood of emotions bleeding out of the character without a stopper. It exposes the character to us so we can understand them better. With Judy it is the conversation we are drawn to, with Jim it is his turmoil of being inferior to the other men in the movie, and with Plato the jacket seems to symbolize the family he wants (since a jacket is protective) and makes Plato seem vulnerable to us. We want to reach out and protect him or sympathize with the sensation of wrapping a figurative blanket around someone. Its maternal, but the red in the jacket still gives us the sensation that there is anger underneath it, a climax approaching. In the car race scene Jim is wearing red white and blue. This is a very patriotic coupling that automatically makes the viewer take the viewpoint and side of Jim in the race. It is apparent on a deep psychological level and subconscious one that the director wants us to root for Jim. The entire struggle that Jim has with being called “chicken” is an American ideal. His noble ideals of being honest and brave seems to even be more emphasized while he’s wearing the red white and blue. In the scene where Jim and Judy are sitting by the car, the jacket paired with Judy’s pink clothing takes on a bouquet type quality. It feels as though their tragic loss has been forgotten and the colors are creating an environment for love. The movie takes on a new turn for the couple. Their tragedies brew love and the jacket takes on a new emotional value. At the end of the film Plato tries to recreate his family with Jim and Judy. It is this figurative recreation of the family that has been deconstructed in each of their own families that shows the generation gap emotionally for parents and children of the 1950s. At this point Plato is wearing the jacket. Jim puts the jacket on him and Plato assumes the point of climactic interest. The focus is put on Plato and his struggle to be understood along with his inner turmoil until the point that he is shot. It is figurative that he dies in the jacket because at the end Jim and Judy leave together. The parents smile at them as if understanding that this phase has ended with a mutual loss. The red jacket leaves the scene in a symbolic way. It is even more interesting that Plato is wearing one red and one blue sock. Judy and Jim both laugh about it but there is more of a message within that than the obvious. The red sock once again drawing our eye to him, and the two colors representing a broken character torn between his dead family and his new one. It was impossible for Plato to resolve his issues with his family since they are dead, and it seems almost fitting that Plato dies at the end in the jacket since his family could not be reconstructed. His issues were irresolvable. Jim and Judy leave the scene holding each other and showing the power of love through loss. Its almost a reassuring message for the 1950’s that at the end of the youths struggles they will return to their values and that love or death will resolve anything. The two look almost like Jim’s parents, mimicry of their return to the marriage and love their parents have even though they are rebelling against it. They return to it as if it were safe. You get the feeling that when they walk off the scene they are walking towards the same domestic environment that they are fighting against. It is interesting that Judy’s parents are not present in the ending scene almost emphasizing that Jim’s parents are more normal that Judy’s. This is because Jim’s parents express their love toward their child and Judy’s parents repress it. The only expectation that there will be a tragic ending is because of the jacket and the short scene about his shooting the puppies. Up until this point Plato is a brooding, interested, and shy character. The colors seem to portray the struggle between the new colors (red & yellow) and the old earth tone colors of the dying generation that doesn’t understand the bold passions of their children. This red reemerges in the 1970s as a color trend, where the reds and browns come together.

The struggle for rights with Brown vs. Board began in 1954 just before the release of Rebel without a Cause. Although there are no African American rights issues directly addressed in the film, there is a definite portrayal of the conflicting viewpoints of the youths and their parents in the film. The untangling of a boiling inner struggle is apparent. It is easy to understand the rift between their parent’s morality and hesitancy from experiencing World War II. The children are growing up in a rising urban environment and question the ideals their parents lived by since they obviously did not save them from war or failure in family life. The structure of family is questioned, how to raise children, and Nicholas Ray seems to question whether traditional upbringing really creates a morality within the characters of the movie. It seems that Plato does not have a moral compass and Jim seems to have an internal one. His parents do not agree that he should be honest about the events where the other youth dies in the car crash. They ask him “well did anyone see you?” And Jim argues that his parents aren’t listening to him, that what he is doing is important, idealistic and true. We are left to question where his morality comes from since it obviously doesn’t come from his parents, and the red white and blue he is wearing makes us think that it comes from an inherent American ideal instilled in each of us. We easily relate to his sense of obligation. Perhaps this questions if his parent’s generation actually held true to the American ideals that they claim to cling to or if Nicholas Ray is trying to say that James Dean represents these ideals more accurately.