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'Rebel' becomes a cause célèbre

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"I'll never forget it," Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese ("The Departed") says of the first time he saw Nicholas Ray's searing teen angst drama "Rebel Without a Cause," starring James Dean as the troubled Jim Stark.

"Rebel Without a Cause," which also starred Oscar-nominated Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo as Los Angeles teenagers, was released less than a month after Dean's death at age 24 in a car crash Sept. 30, 1955. 

Scorsese, 70, the filmmaker of such contemporary classics as 1976's "Taxi Driver," 1980's "Raging Bull" and 1990's "Goodfellas," recalled via email that Dean's first starring role in 1955's "East of Eden" made such an impression on him that "I kept going back to see the picture over and over again."

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"To say that I identified with Dean in the movie, as an actor and as a character — they were the same to us: There was no separation — is way too mild. The identification was total, even violent. And then, suddenly, he was dead."

Dean, said Scorsese, "represented to so many of us that he really was us, and then he was gone ... but then there he was with this new movie. And it was that movie, a movie that was all about life and death and about being misunderstood. ... Dean was suddenly a creature of cinema; that was where he lived. And it made for an overwhelming experience."

Friday evening, Scorsese will be introducing the world premiere of the digital restoration of "Rebel Without a Cause" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Bing Theater. The following evening, the filmmaker, whose latest movie, "The Wolf of Wall Street," opens on Christmas, will be honored with David Hockney at the museum's Art + Film Gala.

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"Rebel Without a Cause" was restored by Warner Bros. in association with Scorsese's Film Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving and restoring motion pictures, and funded by the foundation, Gucci and Warner Bros. Joining Scorsese as hosts of the world premiere will be Gucci creative director Frida Giannini and LACMA director Michael Govan.

'"Rebel Without a Cause' will be our 10th restoration project with the Film Foundation, and I am excited and honored that this timeless film will be experienced by a new generation the way it was initially envisioned by Nicholas Ray," Giannini said via email.

And it seems only appropriate that the "Rebel" restoration have its premiere in Los Angeles because the film makes great use of such locations as Griffith Park Observatory, Santa Monica High School and John Marshall High School.

Scorsese said "Rebel" is still powerful because of "the dynamism. The visual dynamism — the color, the compositions, the locations — tied to the emotional dynamism: Every exchange is so painful, there is such a longing to connect shared by all the characters, especially when they're at their most guarded and embarrassed. And then, suddenly, the barriers between certain characters break down, just fall away, the mask of hatred or scorn is just dropped and the affection underneath is revealed. ... Not many movies have caught that."

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Margaret Bodde, executive director of the Film Foundation, echoed Scorsese's sentiments.

"It meant a lot to me when I was younger," she said. "But it is even more wrenching seeing it now as an older person. It touches in a very emotional way feelings that you have at any age. It really speaks to the human experience."

Though the film retains its emotional power, time has not been kind to its original negative and soundtrack.

"The original camera negative was heavily damaged — due to the picture's popularity and many theatrical re-release," Scorsese said.

Ray had shot the film using a new single-strip Eastman Kodak color stock. The decision had its pros and cons, said Ned Price, vice president of mastering, Warner Bros. Technical Operations.

"The cameras were much smaller and could load easier, so they were much more flexible," Price said. "On the set, you could change your mind and change the angle of the shot — put the camera low on the floor, which Ray did. It allowed him to create a different style of film. It allowed him to adapt his photography to the performance he was seeing."

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But the stock didn't capture color well, he said, adding, "as a result of that, it compromised the palate of Ray's picture." And the negative faded quickly.

With new digital tools, Price said, "we can now take the compromised color layers that survive on the original camera negative and rebuild them."

The film's original stereo soundtrack was erased by Warner Bros. — a common occurrence in the day, so the studio could reuse the magnetic stock for another movie. Chace Audio at Deluxe reconstructed the sound from the magnetic soundtrack stripes of release prints.

On Tuesday, Warner is releasing the James Dean Blu-ray collection, which will feature the newly restored "Rebel" along with the digital restorations of the two other films in which the actor starred: "East of Eden" and 1956's "Giant."

susan.king@latimes.com

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"Rebel Without a Cause"

Where: Bing Theater at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.

When: Friday at 7:30 p.m.

Price: There are no tickets currently available.

Information: http://www.lacma.org

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