NEW YORK — IT is a frustration every moviegoer knows.
There's a great old picture you've been itching to see again, but it never seems to play on TV or arrive at the video store. Then you read somewhere that it's a rare and endangered movie - only two or three copies still exist, and they're squirreled away in a vault so they won't disintegrate or get ripped apart in a carelessly run projector. Your chances of seeing that great old picture again: just about zero.
Clearly this story needs a hero to save the day, and an energetic one has just arrived. Martin Scorsese, whose movies range from "Raging Bull" and "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" to "GoodFellas" and "Cape Fear," is widely regarded as the most gifted American filmmaker of his generation. He's known in cinema circles, moreover, as a champion of film preservation.
Now he is lending his name to an ambitious venture in the restoration and distribution of endangered movies.
The first film to be rejuvenated under the new "Martin Scorsese Presents" logo is "The Golden Coach," dating from 1952. A truly cosmopolitan picture, this superb romantic comedy was filmed by French director Jean Renoir with an English-speaking cast, led by Italian actress Anna Magnani as a member of an 18th-century commedia dell'arte troupe that has crossed the Atlantic to perform in a faraway Spanish colony. Love, politics, and show business get hopelessly intermingled as the story unfolds, until it's hard to find the boundary lines between theater, cinema, and real life.
Mr. Scorsese is not a newcomer to film preservation. In the early 1980s he presented "The Martin Scorsese Color Show" at the New York Film Festival, screening an exquisitely colored Sergio Leone western and calling for more attention to the problem of color fading in classic films. Around the same time he sparked a campaign for more durable film stock from Kodak, and in 1990 he joined Woody Allen, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, and other filmmakers in the Film Foun dation, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the film-preservation cause.
His partner in "Martin Scorsese Presents" is Nicole Jouve, who has assembled retrospectives and touring programs of such master directors as Jean Renoir and Marcel Pagnol. Interama, a Manhattan-based distribution company she founded more than a decade ago, will issue the Scorsese re-releases in 35-mm prints for theaters and also in 16-mm prints for use in schools and colleges, since introducing classic movies to young spectators is a priority of the new enterprise. All prints will be made from newly rest ored negatives.
The premiere screening of "The Golden Coach" in its rejuvenated version, held recently at the new Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center, was less than perfect; some of the sound was a bit muffled, and the tail end of the movie clearly needed another session at the processing lab.
Yet the audience was enthralled by the chance to see this much-loved film in an almost-pristine state, and at a gathering after the screening, Scorsese assured me that the remaining glitches would be promptly remedied.
I asked Scorsese what other films are on his restoration list, and he mentioned some fascinating choices including "The Proud and the Beautiful," a French-Mexican production directed by Yves Allegret in 1953, and "Contempt," a genuine classic by Jean-Luc Godard that has been virtually unseeable by American audiences since soon after its 1963 premiere.
"I find it very disconcerting," writes Scorsese in a program note on the "Golden Coach" revival, "that a film of such sublime classical beauty ... has been unavailable for so many years. In an attempt to make up for lost time, I'm presenting this film for the enjoyment of film lovers, and in the hope that it might awaken some dormant cinematic Muse in film students and filmmakers."
"The Golden Coach" is now having an extended run at the Public Theater here, with engagements elsewhere to follow.