BIGGER THAN LIFE
Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: James Mason, Barbara Rush, Walter Matthau,
Director: Nicholas Ray
Audio: PCM Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Features: See Review
Length: 95 Minutes
Release Date: March 23, 2010
ďAnd Abraham stretched out his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.Ē
ďBut Ed, you didn't read it all...God stopped Abraham!Ē
ďGOD WAS WRONG.Ē
Itís increasingly rare and exciting for me when I finally get to see a movie I hadnít been able to see before. And itís even better when the first time I get to experience it is on a quality Criterion Blu-ray.
The film is Bigger Than Life, and long before Revolutionary Road reflected on the somber and quiet desperation of American suburban 50s living, Nicholas Rayís masterpiece was actually there, in the heart of the decade, turning the porcelain illusion over and revealing a dark underbelly of disillusion, discontent, and phobia. It was somewhat shocking in its day, but not a success, and has been a hard movie to track down for many decades. Thatís even more surprising when you consider the man who made it also made Rebel Without a Cause.
It was James Masonís first film as producer, and his subject matter was a magazine article about a Queens man who had a bad reaction to the then-experimental drug Cortisone.
Mason plays Ed Avery, a modest school teacher living his small version of the American dream with his dutiful wife Lou (Rush) and young son Richie (Olsen). Money is tight, but they have a nice home and all the necessary 50s accessories, right down to the television set.
But a rare condition brings both insufferable pain and a bleak diagnosis for survival. Edís doctor prescribes the Cortisone with a sober warning; it could either be the miracle drug that saves his life or his undoing.
Ed seems careless with it, sometimes almost not remembering that he JUST took his dosage, other times taking more and more until he surprises even his doctor by asking for a refill several days too early. And all the while, he moves through depression and what his doctor describes as a psychosis, while his family bears the full brunt of his altered state.
But is it a psychosis? For the sake of the story, it is, but listen to Ed and his new ideas about raising children and educationÖisnít this just a man lashing out at cookie-cutter ideals? A man who wants to boldly shake up the machinery around him? A man who would never have the courage to go on the offensive without the drug? Or in short, a man whose ramblings would be completely subversive, if not for the mask of a chemically induced mental disorder?
What Ed does and says are indefensible, turning into a brute whose shadows loom large over rooms and whose shattered reflections represent the turmoil within. But looking back on a decade I never experienced, I canít help wondering if audiences reacted to this film as the story of drug addiction, or as the quiet screaming for help from a man locked inside a smiling and attractive prison.
Either way, the drama is intense and the acting is superb. But the real star is Nicholas Ray, who crafts one memorable shot after another and burns image after image into his viewersí minds. My favorite is Richie, searching his fatherís bureau for the pills that have made him unrecognizable. When he finds them, he slams the drawer shut, which moves the mirror on top just enough to revealÖwell, I wonít say, but you can probably figure it out.
I donít know what kept this movie out of circulation for so long, but considering that many more modern films have turned a fascinated eye toward the notion of darker pinings from the 1950s such as Revolutionary Road or Blue Velvet (not necessarily a period piece, but with the same approach and intention), it certainly is amazing to see a movie FROM that time period that essentially confirmed our suspicions about the illusion of suburban paradise.
Criterion has done a remarkable job with this CinemaScope high definition presentation; this is one of the nicest looking offerings from the 50s that Iíve yet experienced. The colors are bright and clean, the images are detailed and crisp, and the print itself is in remarkable shape. All of this adds up to a perfect classical cinema experience for the home.
The uncompressed original mono audio is nicely rendered; clean and clear and free from distortions. A few musical cues give the more potent and dramatic moments a little more dynamic range. Nicely done.
The extras include a half-hour television interview with Nicholas Ray from the 70s in which the great director looked back on his career. There is also a detailed and informative commentary track with Geoff Andrew, who authored a book on Rayís works. There is a new interview with Susan Ray, the directorís widow, a new video appreciation of the film, the original trailer in which James Mason addresses the audience personally, plus a terrific booklet with a new critical essay.
Iím pleased to say that my anticipation in finally seeing Bigger Than Life was rewarded. Nicholas Rayís dark unflinching look at drug addiction and suburban unrest remains a powerful testament to his talents, and Iím confident that this terrific Criterion Blu-ray gave me the best possible way to experience this soon-to-be-remembered masterpiece for the first time.