James Dean accomplished a lot in his brief film career crystallizing the concept of the misunderstood teenager, making the world safe for Actors Studio mumbling but it took a fatal car crash in 1955 to turn him into an icon and an industry. The obvious parallel here is with Elvis, of course. Yet the endless media spew and loony fan adulation that define Dean's legacy was for its time unique; it became the model for every morbid celebrity death cult from Marilyn Monroe on down.
So the question remains: Why the continuing fuss over a guy who starred in only three pictures (none of them an indisputable classic) before dying at age 24? The James Dean 35th Anniversary Collection, Warner's new boxed-set release of Dean's complete screen oeuvre (in nicely restored versions), provides something of an answer. Forget all the critical blather about rebellion, alienation, innovative acting, and even the tragedy of youth struck down in its prime. The real reason Dean's presence still looms so powerfully is purely visual: Unlike that of any other star, from Mary Pickford to Prince, Dean's look refuses to date. However you categorize it macho/sensitive, intellectual/delinquent it remains the essence of cool.
For Dean, then, style was content. So it comes as a pleasant shock to re-view the films and find they still have some substance beyond the Look, substance that's done considerable justice in these new video versions. All three features have been greatly cleaned up, a big improvement over their earlier video versions. The major finds here, in the case of East of Eden (the Oedipal drama that was Dean's breakthrough) and Rebel Without a Cause (the youth film that cemented his image), are authentic stereo soundtracks unavailable since the films' original releases. Both of these, featuring dramatic modernist scores by the underrated Leonard Rosenman, are appropriately lush and help restore a sense of the wide-screen scale that's lost on videocassette. (The forthcoming videodisc versions will be ''letterboxed,'' with the full wide-screen picture sandwiched between black bars.) Giant, the most conventional but visually spectacular and funny of the batch, is, alas, only in simulated stereo it was originally released in mono.
Completing the set is Forever James Dean, a superficial documentary whose insights are summed up by its early-'80s New Wave-style theme song, ''American Rebel.'' Even this tape has its moments, however, including some priceless footage of a pre-stardom Dean doing a Pepsi commercial.
In all, the package is a splendid advertisement for the uses of home video; short of a well-equipped revival theater in your neighborhood, it's unlikely you could experience these pictures (and their star's apparently timeless appeal) any more effectively. A-