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Bigger Than Life (The Criterion Collection)

10 customer reviews

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The Criterion Collection
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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

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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, Robert F. Simon, Christopher Olsen
  • Directors: Nicholas Ray
  • Writers: James Mason, Nicholas Ray, Burton Roueche, Clifford Odets, Cyril Hume
  • Format: Multiple Formats, Color, NTSC, Special Edition, Widescreen
  • Language: English
  • Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only. Read more about DVD formats.)
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rated: Unrated
  • Studio: Criterion
  • DVD Release Date: March 23, 2010
  • Run Time: 95 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • ASIN: B003152YVY
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #49,214 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)
  • Learn more about "Bigger Than Life (The Criterion Collection)" on IMDb

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Byron Kolln HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on December 27, 2009
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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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Sally on April 27, 2012
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This movie I saw many years ago and explained what had happened to my loving mother. I recommend this book to anyone whose mother or parent was used as a guinea pig for this drug. The doctor's never monitored what was happening to her mentally and the fallout on the family from the mental disturbances it created. Yes, it did keep her alive from asthmatic attacks but the emotional and physical damage to the children was massive. We nearly lost her with the suicidal thoughts and threats of driving off the hill highway to kill herself. It was many years later that the drug changed to safety measures. I am so grateful for the company that put this movie out. It explained the terror we went through. This raw drug turned a lovely person into a monster. Watch the movie.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By technoguy on September 1, 2010
This 50s film on American suburbia now released on DVD sure packs a punch into the solar plexus of conformity. Mason,producing as well,gives one of his best performances in a Jeckyll and Hyde role.Ray was one of the great American directors.His use of colour was symbolical and expressive.His use of wide-screen Cinemascope opens up architectural space inside a suburban home.The use of light and shadow and camera angle to bring out extremes of emotion and a character's inner life and phantasy.Rush is superb as the supportive but anxious wife,Lou.Olse is excellent as Ritchie the son.And Mattau comes across well as an eccentric but affable colleague and family friend.He is concerned about his colleague's changes in mood and supports the wife and son.

The subject is,superficially,the use/abuse of a 'wonder drug',Cortisone,to heal Mason's physical disease.If he doesn't take this drug he is expected to live for only another year,and in crippling pain.However Mason takes more than he should,pretends to be a doctor,writing out his own prescriptions.This unlocks a pandora's box of psychosis and patriarchy:"God was wrong",he declares, Abraham should have sacrificed Isaac. He is about to sacrifice his son with scissors after shutting his wife away in a cupboard. He is the template for any dictator, now his inner-Nietzsche has been liberated.I loved everything about this long lost masterpiece.Mason is unforgettable and brings the best of his acting skills to the part.One for the collectors
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By The CinemaScope Cat on October 13, 2011
An astonishing piece of work and one of the seminal films of the 1950s, Nicholas Ray's view of an archetypal suburban family, seemingly perfect on the surface, that briskly deteriorates when the father (James Mason) has a severe reaction to a new drug (Cortisone) that manifests itself in severe mood swings and delusions of superiority and a Messiah complex that threatens the safety of his wife (Barbara Rush) and son (Christopher Olsen). It's a disturbing film on many levels and so dark that it's no surprise that it was a commercial failure when first released. Mason is excellent, balancing the complex psychosis without going over the top. In the best performance of her career, the underrated Barbara Rush has the more difficult "wife" role and young Christopher Olsen (squeezing in this solid performance in between equally solid work for Hitchcock and Sirk) avoids the trap that mars so many child performances in 50s cinema. Ray, along with his cinematographer Joseph MacDonald (THE SAND PEBBLES), make expert use of the CinemaScope frame and David Raksin provides a strong underscore. Co-starring Kipp Hamilton and Walter Matthau in one of his early film roles. Highly recommended.

The Criterion DVD is a handsome anamorphic wide screen (2.35) transfer.
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