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SPECIFICATIONS
  • 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
  • English Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono
  • English subtitles
  • 1 Disc
FEATURES
  • 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, the director's widow and editor of the book I Was Interrupted: Nicholas Ray on Making Movies
  • Theatrical trailer

Bigger Than Life


Reviewed by: Chris Galloway

Directed By: Nicholas Ray
Starring: James Mason, Barbara Rush, Walter Matthau
1956 | 95 Minutes | Licensor: 20th Century Fox

Release Information
DVD | MSRP: $39.95 | Series: The Criterion Collection | Edition: #507
RLJ Entertainment

Release Date: March 23, 2010
Review Date: March 7, 2010

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SYNOPSIS

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.

Forum members rate this film 9/10

 

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PICTURE

Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life finally gets its long awaited home video release in North America through The Criterion Collection, presenting the film in its original aspect ratio of 2.55:1 on this dual-layer DVD. The transfer has also been enhanced for widescreen televisions.

The simultaneous Blu-ray release from Criterion (which I viewed before the DVD) delivers an extraordinary image overall but the DVD certainly holds up against it. It too delivers a consistently sharp image with some excellent detail and looks strikingly smooth on the whole. The colour scheme to the film is quite subdued so I can’t say colours really stand out altogether that much, but they still look accurately presented. The print’s been beautifully cleaned up and there is very little damage present. I also can’t say any digital artifacts stuck out; I didn’t notice any edge-enhancement or any distracting noise. It’s quite clean.

It does share the some of the same problems its Blu-ray counterpart has however. Blacks look quite washed here, more grayish at their darkest. But I’m sure this is an issue present in the source and that adjusting contrast would probably have done more harm to the transfer than good.

The Blu-ray is certainly the better of the two, presenting a far sharper image with more detail, but the DVD’s standard definition transfer (which in essence is a downscaled version of that same high-def transfer) still looks good.

8/10

All DVD screen captures are presented in their original size from the source disc. Images have been compressed slightly to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.

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AUDIO

Criterion’s DVD edition comes with a decent Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track. The only problem would probably be the film’s melodramatic score, which can get a little edgy and harsh when it reaches the higher, swelling notes. But other than those moments the track is quite clean and sharp with clear dialogue.

6/10

SUPPLEMENTS

Criterion has put together a modest little selection of supplements for this edition, all of which are the same between both the DVD and Blu-ray editions.

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.

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

CLOSING

I mentioned in the Blu-ray review that I’m bewildered as to why Fox has never released this film on home video before. Though controversial at the time, as well as a box office dud, the film’s certainly held up over the years and any its subject matter is certainly nowhere near as racy now—and nowhere near less relevant. But if the wait led to this DVD (and Blu-ray) then it was certainly worth it. It’s a solid edition in every way and comes highly recommended.


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