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Bigger Than Life (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]

4.7 out of 5 stars 26 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Product Description

A schoolteacher becomes violently addicted to a new wonder drug, cortisone. Directed by Nicholas Ray.

Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life is a great American film long esteemed overseas but little known in its own land. That should change with this addition to the Criterion Collection--the film's first-ever U.S. video release, and a paradigm of what Criterion exists to do. James Mason (who also produced the picture) is wonderfully subtle in an unlikely role, a Middle American schoolteacher named Ed Avery who's afflicted with a rare inflammation of the arteries. Only experimental hormone treatment can save the man from increasing pain and early death--but misuse of the drug leads to a darkening and distortion of his gentle personality and a nightmare situation for his family. Bigger Than Life isn't a cautionary lesson in the perils of "miracle drugs," even if its genesis was a New Yorker article about a real-life case of cortisone abuse. Instead, consider the film as an adult, flip-side variant of Ray's Rebel Without a Cause (made the year before): an EKG of the American middle class in the Eisenhower era. The medical issues on the surface pale beside, in Jonathan Lethem's phrase, "the anxieties just under the skin of the film"--the personal, cultural, and socio-economic dilemmas that mostly remain unspoken, and unanswerable.

The picture is a landmark in the evolution of CinemaScope. Ray was among the first directors to explore the possibilities the wide screen held for psychological and emotional expressiveness (as opposed to mere pictorialism and spectacle), and he uses it brilliantly even though most of the film transpires within a middle-class home. The house is cunningly designed and visualized to seem commonplace, and probably '50s audiences in America registered it that way--just another glance at their everyday reality--while foreign audiences saw lucid and powerful abstraction. Ray invests every sector with dynamic potentiality and meaning, including the acre of thicket and scrub out back that realistically shouldn't be there a stone's throw from the Averys' picture-perfect suburban street. Add the director's bold use of color to underscore the disquiet and intensify the emotional environment, and we have an exemplary modern film. This comes through all the more strongly on the DVD and especially in Blu-ray; the home screen enhances both the abstraction and the specificity of Ray's vision. In the meticulous digital restoration of the original camera negative, the colors are more crisply and definitively there than in any shopworn repertory print or standard TV broadcast. --Richard T. Jameson

Special Features

New, restored high-definition digital transfer
Audio commentary featuring critic Geoff Andrew
Profile of Nicholas Ray (1977), a half-hour television interview
New video appreciation of Bigger Than Life
New video interview with Susan Ray
Theatrical trailer
An essay by film writer B. Kite

Product Details

  • Actors: James Mason, Barbara Rush, Walter Matthau
  • Directors: Nicholas Ray
  • Format: Multiple Formats, Blu-ray, Color, NTSC, Special Edition, Widescreen
  • Language: English
  • Region: Region A/1 (Read more about DVD/Blu-ray formats.)
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rated: Unrated
  • Studio: Criterion
  • DVD Release Date: March 23, 2010
  • Run Time: 95 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • ASIN: B003152YVO
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #78,335 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)
  • Learn more about "Bigger Than Life (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]" on IMDb

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Blu-ray
Talk about a film ahead of its time, Nicholas Ray's 1956 drama Bigger than Life tanked upon release in the US most likely because of its dark, brooding and unflinching observations on suburban life (the film is partially based on Ray's own childhood, if I'm recalling correctly.); people back then didn't want to be told about the monster next door, and to a lesser extent people today still don't want this, but Ray's film is so perfect in every respect that one can't look away from the screen for a moment.

Ray, like Fuller, unfortunately was, more or less, wholly ignored in the US during his life but was immensely popular with the Cahiers kids and I'm glad to see that in the past decade or so his films, besides the popular Rebel Without a Cause, are getting some serious reevaluations.
Here's the details, for those interested, in regards to the Criterion release:

* New, restored high-definition digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
* Audio commentary featuring critic Geoff Andrew (The Films of Nicholas Ray)
* Profile of Nicholas Ray (1977), a half-hour television interview with the director
* New video appreciation of Bigger Than Life with author Jonathan Lethem (Chronic City)
* New video interview with Susan Ray, widow of the director and editor of I Was Interrupted: Nicholas Ray on Making Movies
* Theatrical trailer
* PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by critic and video maker B. Kite
Here is to hoping that they get their hands on Johnny Guitar.
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Format: DVD
In BIGGER THAN LIFE, director Nicholas Ray and producer/star James Mason explored the dark side of suburban life. James Mason delivers one of his most accomplished and subversive performances in this sadly-neglected 1956 movie gem, the story of a man pushed to the brink of madness thanks to his abuse of a 'miracle drug'.

Mild-mannered schoolteacher Ed Avery (James Mason) works hard to provide for his wife Lou (Barbara Rush) and young son Richie (Christopher Olsen), secretly working after-hours as a taxi switchboard operator. When Ed is struck down by a debilitating and potentially fatal illness, doctors prescribe wonder drug Cortisone, and it seems to do the trick. Ed feels more confident than he has in years, and loves to spoil the family with expensive trips to the department store. But Ed's dependence takes a darker turn when he begins taking the pills in larger quantities. Lou and Richie can only stand by helplessly as Ed angrily lashes out, hurling abuse and insults at his wife and son. The mood swings only get worse as the weeks wear on, to the moment when Ed finally cracks completely...

I won't try to spoil any major plot points. BIGGER THAN LIFE will surprise and shock you with it's hard-hitting subject matter, and the frank way it's depicted was I'm sure the main reason why the movie flopped in 1956. It's well and truly the flipside of "Father Knows Best". Today the movie still rings true because so many families are dealing with similar issues on a daily basis. James Mason and Barbara Rush are completely mesmerising to watch here. Child actors from the 1950's are normally very mannered and "trained" on screen, but young Christopher Olsen is heartbreaking as the tortured Richie; his performance absolutely rings true. Walter Matthau, Kipp Hamilton and Roland Winters are also very fine.
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Format: DVD Verified Purchase
***** 1956. Directed by Nicholas Ray. A teacher, suffering from a rare and painful disease, accepts to take cortisone, a new drug in the 50's, under medical surveillance. Unfortunately, the patient modifies his prescriptions and becomes little by little psychotic. This undisputable masterpiece presents in 95 minutes all the major Nicholas Ray themes: an idealistic hero who can't accept his average destiny, the bitter study of the American way of life and a smart use of the new Technicolor technology, with its new space offered to the directors, to name a few. Some scenes, like the scenes with the mirrors, are already part of Movie History. You can now buy a zone 2 DVD of BIGGER THAN LIFE at with a perfect copy of the film and very interesting featurettes about the themes handled by Nicholas Ray in this film. A DVD zone your library.
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Format: Blu-ray
Nicholas Ray has long been one of the most underrated directors. He may have been recognized and respected for his groundbreaking Rebel Without A Cause, but his much of his output was long ignored by mainstream audiences and critics alike. The tide has recently been shifting and Ray's other output has begun to receive the recognition it deserves. Bigger than Life is Ray's 1956 effort concerning mental illness, drug use, and the 1950's family structure.

Bigger than Life tells the tale of Ed Avery, a good-natured school teacher who in the hard 50's is juggling an additional job at a Taxi company to provide for his family. As the pressure of everyday life and these two jobs mount up, he notices certain bouts of pain and even a few blackouts. Dismissing these episodes, it later becomes obvious to him and his family that he is unable to keep up with daily life in such a way. A specialist tells him that he has a very rare inflammation of the arteries; a condition that would grant him only a short few months to live. The only way of combating this disease is a new experimental steroid hormone called Cortisone. This abuse of this drug which Ed must take for the rest of his livelihood in has extremely adverse effects such as Psychosis, a condition with symptoms such as hallucinations and impaired judgment.

Ray's treatment of Ed's abuse of Cortisone is simply jaw-dropping. The audience continually waits and waits for a violent outburst, an outburst that literally tears the family apart-but it doesn't happen. Ray could have easily taken this condition and created a violent and physically abusive monster, but he keeps Ray controlled. On the surface, besides his little conspiracy and new-found ideologies Ed does not seem to be effected in a major way by the drug.
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Bigger Than Life (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
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