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

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Editorial Reviews

Product Description

Though ignored at the time of its release, Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life is now recognized as one of the great American films of the 1950s. When a friendly, successful suburban teacher and father (James Mason, in one of his most indelible roles) is prescribed cortisone for a painful, possibly fatal affliction, he grows dangerously addicted to the experimental drug, resulting in his transformation into a psychotic and ultimately violent household despot. This Eisenhower-era throat-grabber, shot in expressive CinemaScope, is an excoriating take on the nuclear family; that it came in the day of Father Knows Best makes it all the more shocking—and wildly entertaining.

Stills from Bigger Than Life


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.)
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rated: Unrated
  • Studio: Criterion
  • DVD Release Date: March 23, 2010
  • Run Time: 95 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • ASIN: B003152YVO
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #77,577 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)
  • Learn more about "Bigger Than Life (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]" on IMDb

Customer Reviews

4.9 out of 5 stars
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James Mason, Barbara Rush and Walter Matthau were simply great in executing their roles.
Dennis A. Denton
Skin tones are pleasant to look at for the most part although some scenes expose a touch of artificial tampering in respect to lighting.
Jimmy Lee
Bigger than Life is Ray's 1956 effort concerning mental illness, drug use, and the 1950's family structure.
Bobby Hami

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

34 of 41 people found the following review helpful By Le_Samourai on December 22, 2009
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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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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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By C.J. Hustwick VINE VOICE on March 28, 2010
Coming out only a year after its infinitely more famous predecessor, "Bigger Than Life" is the film that truly blistered the veneer of 1950s domestic bliss -- unsparingly exposing the demons that lurk beneath "the good life". It's nominally about prescription drug abuse, but it's really about emotional abuse and the disintegration of a family. I love "Rebel Without a Cause", but it only touches on issues that are ripped wide open here.

James Mason gives the performance of his career as a high school teacher who finds himself at the mercy of the new miracle drug Cortisone. Once he begins dosage, we slowly watch his personality change, from overbearing euphoria, to manic depression, paranoia, and then ultimately dementia and psychosis. The title refers to him eventually perceiving himself as bigger than life itself, becoming truly delusional and dangerous.

But as I mentioned, this is a powerful film that touches on a lot more subjects than simply drug abuse. If you grew up with any parental issues in your life, as many of us have, this will be a difficult but cathartic experience. Nicholas Ray, in my mind, is now undoubtedly the greatest American director who was working in the 1950s. This might be the very best film of that decade.

As for the Criterion disc, it looks fabulous. However, it also contains a 1970s sit-down interview with Mr. Ray which might be conducted by the most obnoxious, self-absorbed critic imaginable. Proceed at your own risk. Fortunately, the commentary track is the very opposite -- recorded by a highly knowledgeable but unpretentious British "film scholar". Also, I think the graphic design and type treatment of the packaging is ridiculously overdone; a gigantic "Bigger" and "Life" mixed with a retro Duncan Hines "than" sandwiched between. Just let the film speak for itself.
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Bigger Than Life (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
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