Bigger Than Life makes a stunning debut on Blu-ray courtesy of The Criterion Collection, presenting the film in its original aspect ratio of 2.55:1 on this dual-layer Blu-ray disc. The transfer is presented in 1080p/24hz.
I’ve always been fairly puzzled as to why this film hasn’t been released on DVD before in North America – and I’m not even sure if it’s even been released on VHS. Though controversial at the time of its release back in 1956 over its presentation of middle class suburbia, the film’s gained critical backing since then, many considering it director Nicholas Ray’s masterpiece, and films that are similarly critical of the American family are far more common now. Whatever the reason may be the wait was certainly worth it. Taken from the original 35mm negative, the high-def transfer found on here—which looks to have been done by Fox according to the credits in the booklet—looks fantastic. Source issues limit it in some regards but the digital transfer itself never falters, delivering a consistently sharp and highly detailed picture. Digital clean-up has been pretty good with very little in the way of damage being present and the film retaining a fairly film-like look.
The colour scheme to the film is fairly muted, opting more for cooler grays and blues with the occasional orange and red making an appearance. But all colours have a real subdued look, never looking all that striking on screen, though I feel this is all intended. Black levels may be the weakest aspect of this transfer, coming off quite washed throughout a majority of the film. I have a feeling this is how it looked in the source and I doubt it could have been helped; messing with the contrast would have hurt the image overall.
As a whole, though, it’s striking and was well worth the wait. All of those dying to see this film released in North America (and never had the ability to pick up a DVD from another region) will be more than thrilled with it. 8/10
All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.
Criterion has put together a modest little selection of supplements for this edition.
First is an audio commentary by critic Geoff Andrew, recorded in 2009. For a scholarly track it can be a bit dry but it’s still worth a listen. Andrew examines Ray’s framing and use of light and colour, and offers a very thorough and insightful examination of the film’s plotline and characters, though maybe other than some little points here and there, doesn’t offer much that isn’t already obvious. He does give some interesting notes on the production, specifically Ray’s concern not to present Cortisone, the drug at the center of the film that leads to the breakdown of the film’s protagonist, as the villain of the film, which led to some changes in the script, specifically the choice of James Mason’s character to abuse the drugs. Andrew brings up the article on which the film is based, making comparisons between the film and the actual case, and he also offers some other interesting facts about the production, such as a cameo by Marilyn Monroe that sounds to have been filmed but was cut by Fox out of fear she would try to count it as one of the films she was required to do under contract with the studio. Not a great track but it has some interesting facts and some decent analysis. Thankfully some of the other supplements found on here pick up on the slack, the remaing of which are all found under the “Supplements” section of the fly-out menu.
Profile of Nicholas Ray is a 29-minute television program recorded in 1977 featuring critic Cliff Jahr interviewing director Nicholas Ray. Disappointingly it has nothing to do with Bigger Than Life directly but it’s a nice interview with the filmmaker. The interview focuses a lot of attention on Rebel Without a Cause and James Dean, but Ray talks about his technique and the common themes found throughout his films. Though Jahr’s interview skills are so-so, Ray carries it nicely and he offers some excellent and engaging insight into his work.
Next is a 27-minute interview with author Jonathan Lethem who gushes about the film. He talks primarily about the film’s presentation of the middle-class, pointing out all of the little details Ray packs in that manage to tell so much about not only the family in this film, but the American middle class at the time (and possibly now) in general. He talks about the “Red Scare” and the McCarthy era, mentioning the hypocrisy’s and contradictions of the time and their presentation in the film. He points out many little things that I didn’t notice, showing the “anxieties that exist just under the skin of the film.” It acts as a nice little addendum to the commentary, and I think it actually manages to point out more little details than the commentary track did.
The final interview is with Nicholas Ray’s widow Susan Ray. In this 22-minute interview she talks about her husband’s career and his “process,” calling it “creative chaos.” She then focuses on Bigger Than Life and points out how her husband’s views appear throughout the film, and his use of colour, which she says was inspired by the Lüscher colour test. Also, similar to the commentary, she breaks down the film’s “happy” ending. It’s another excellent piece that seems to nicely close off the releases examination of the film and Ray’s work.
The disc then concludes with a great theatrical trailer for the film, with an introduction by James Mason (who was a producer for the film.)
The release also comes with a fairly thick booklet with an excellent essay by writer B. Kite, who praises Ray’s use of image, bringing up particularly strong moments from his films, gets into detail about Godard’s and other members of Cahiers du cinema’s praise of Ray and this film in particular. He then concludes with an excellent analysis and breakdown of the film.
Doesn’t look like much but they’re a fairly solid collection of supplements. It would have been interesting to maybe have a reprinting of the article on which the film is based, similar to what Criterion has done in the past with other titles, like 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. Also, if it indeed it was shot, the sequence with Monroe’s cameo would have been gold, though I would assume this would be long lost. In all, though, I felt fairly pleased with what we are given. 7/10