Bigger Than Life
Special Edition, The Criterion Collection
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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. JamesonSee all Editorial Reviews
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
An essay by film writer B. Kite
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Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life cordially invites us to the nostalgic and conformist suburban life of the 1950's where milk men gleefully prance into your kitchen to deliver milk, obedient sons watch cowboys and indian television shows, stunningly beautiful and elegant wives are eager to please, and husbands happily work and take pride in their careers. Meet the Avery family.
Ed Avery (James Mason) fits this description of an ideal husband during this time period quite nicely; he is hardworking, gregarious in both his professions as a school teacher and, as a part time cab-driver, he is also responsible and very handsome. The condition of Ed's poor health is exposed immediately when we watch him uncomfortably and strenuously clench his pocket watch before teaching. Despite his on going pain, Ed continues to cope with it and does not let family, work or friends interfere. Unfortunately, the symptoms persist and grow with intensity to such an unprecedented level that he suffers his first blackout in his room. His wife, Lou, (Barbara Rush) rushes to his aid after hearing the alarming sound of Ed's body pummel to the floor. As a result, Ed is taken to the hospital by a fellow friend and co-worker, Wally (Walter Matthau).
Initially, Ed's condition is an enigma of all sorts until a team of specialized doctors diagnose him with a rare blood vessel disorder that has a poor prognosis; however, there is a chance of hope when a fairly new "miracle" drug is offered to Ed. It is called Cortisone. His subscribed dosage is to take 1 tablet every 6 hours. Ed is left little choice as he is told his condition will worsen and subsequently kill him in less than a year if he does not take the cortisone. Ed agrees half-heartedly. Within a couple of days of taking the medication, we see a completely revived and revamped Ed; he is more energetic, enthusiastic and a little spontaneous too at sometimes. Ed's pain-free life is just grand until he starts to disobey the prescribed dosage by taking 2-3 tablets at a time. Ed's addiction to the drug causes him to emit some rather alarming and erratic behavior. His altered behavior can be seen as comical, bizarre, unsettling, and just downright psychotic at some points. Ed's addiction destroys everything in his path; moreover, his family, friends and co-workers are all affected to some degree, especially the parents at PTO meeting (excellent scene). Ed's family observe his behavior in sheer horror but passively accept it because they love him and do not want him to die. After all, to them, Ed's bizarre behavior is just a symptom of the medication. The nuclear Avery family is mentally exhausted by Ed's addiction; emotions run high in feelings of frustration, sadness, confusion, depression and anger. We watch a loving and devoted family react and reflect upon this new crisis as so many other families do in America.
The acting performances in this film are nothing short of excellent. James Mason, Barbara Rush and their son are all convincing and authentic as the classic nuclear family of the 1950's. Walther Matthau's small role is also noteworthy as well. The bigger picture, or the real dilemma in this film is not how the family copes with a loved ones addiction but for how long will they cope with it. Watching Ed's addiction spin out of control makes us ponder the real disturbing question that is so prevalent towards the end of the film: Is a loved ones complete and sudden transformation into a monster worth living to the family or is he/she better off dead ?
In regards to the quality of the film presented courtesy of the Criterion Collection, I don't think we will ever receive a better presentation than this. This is another flawless picture that impressed me from start to finish; vibrant pastel colors will leap off your screen to perfection; interior and exterior shots will show incredible depth without losing the authentic look and feel of a 1950's film. A very light and uniform grain will please and leave very much to be desired here. Skin tones are pleasant to look at for the most part although some scenes expose a touch of artificial tampering in respect to lighting. All in all, this is the last thing you should be worrying about because the array of stylish dresses, professional wardrobes, and casual clothing are enough to fully compensate; moreover, fabric detail is fine and very sharp. The sound, which is presented in a uncompressed full monaural soundtrack is also very serviceable; pops, hisses, crackles are non existent; dialogue is crisp and very articulate.
In conclusion, another beautiful and valuable piece of artwork is added to the Criterion Collection. A must buy.
Finally, but not least important, Criterion knocks this one (as they usually do) out of the park. Just a marvelous transfer from a company that I have grown to expect nothing less.
I hope Amazon runs more special pricings on the Criterion movie transfers.
Most recent customer reviews
Never seen it before, but I'm very pleased.
What a ride,The movie starts as quaint as humanly possible. By the end you've got yourself a new grip on fifties paranoia. Plus James Mason goes bonkers.Read more