Criterion // 1956 // 95 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // March 15th, 2010
The story of the handful of hope that became a fistful of hell!
Despite his excellent cinematic output, Nicholas Ray seems destined to be second-tier, a footnote in cinema history. Although his film noirs (including In a Lonely Place and They Live By Night) are excellent examples of genre, they're rarely mentioned in the same breath with the greats like Double Indemnity or Touch of Evil. Similarly, he was championed by the French New Wave critics, but unlike their other heroes Hawks and Ford, Ray doesn't seem to have earned the same esteem all these years later. Then, there's his most famous movie, Rebel Without a Cause. Ray's contribution is overshadowed by the legacy of star James Dean and his tragic early death. It's a small hope, but now that Ray has joined the ranks of the Criterion Collection with Bigger Than Life, we can all hope for a reappraisal that will allow Ray to join the ranks of his illustrious contemporaries. If not, we still have an excellent Blu-ray release to enjoy.
Ed Avery (James Mason, North by Northwest) is an overworked schoolteacher who must moonlight as a cab operator to make ends meet for his beautiful wife (Barbara Rush, It Came from Outer Space) and young boy. One day he collapses in pain and is diagnosed with a rare condition that causes a hardening of the arteries, extreme pain, and eventually death. His only hope is the new miracle drug cortisone, but the side effects include depression and psychosis. Everything seems fine when Ed leaves the hospital under his new treatment, perhaps too fine. Cortisone makes Ed feel so good that he starts taking too much. Unchecked, he shares his drug-induced opinions with everyone from his wife to the PTA meeting, and it isn't too long before the cortisone makes him want to put his words into actions, with deadly consequences.
On paper, Bigger Than Life sounds like a horrible afterschool "Just Say No" kind of anti-drug film. The fact that it was based on a nonfiction article about the dangers of the then-new cortisone, which was being touted as a miracle drug, only seems to lend credence to that view. When you put the film in the hands of Nicholas Ray, rather than exposing the horrors of drug-induced psychosis, Bigger Than Life becomes a fascinating condemnation of middle-class values. Cortisone (or its abuse, as the film has to make clear to appease censors) merely removes Ed's filter, exposing the seething thoughts that he must keep in check to survive as an underpaid, overworked schoolteacher. With that filter removed Ed becomes a monster (and Ray isn't afraid to paint him as such), but he's a sympathetic monster. I doubt anyone would agree with everything that Ed says (at least they wouldn't admit to it in public), but his rants against mediocrity and conformity are sure to strike home with some viewers. Even if the viewer doesn't agree with Ed, it's hard to deny the passion he feels for bettering others, even if it's woefully misguided.
If you don't care a lick about cortisone or condemning middle-class mediocrity, Bigger than Life is still a fun film because we get to watch some excellent actors at the top of their game. James Mason positively chews through his scenes, bringing an unassailable gravity to Ed Avery while still delivering lines like "We're breeding a race of moral midgets" with true gusto. He's supported ably by his Barbara Rush as Ed's wife. She must walk the tricky line between wanting to help her husband feel better, but knowing that without cortisone he could die. Walter Matthau makes an appearance as a fellow school teacher, and it's pretty hilarious to see him as a Fifties health nut.
I usually don't mention it outside the context of a release's technical specs, but Ray's use of the Cinemascope is worth mentioning. The very wide screen format (2.55 instead of the more contemporary wide of 2.40) compresses spaces, giving the Avery home an odd feeling of claustrophobia. The use of color is equally impressive. There's an overly saturated, lurid look to much of the film that gives the sense of a pulsing life just beneath the surface waiting for a cinematic cortisone to let it out just like it let out Avery's demons. Whatever its other strengths and weaknesses, Bigger Than Life is an amazing example of Cinemascope cinematography and positively gorgeous to look at.
That gorgeous quality is represented well on this Criterion release. The scope frames positively brims with perfectly saturated color, just the right shimmer of grain, and no significant print or transfer problems that I could see. The uncompressed mono soundtrack does a fine job with dialogue. I think I heard a bit of distortion here and there, but nothing that made the film difficult to hear.
Since this is Criterion's first Ray film, there's plenty of room for the extras to shine. Things kick off with a commentary by Geoff Andrew, the author of The Films of Nicholas Ray. He does an excellent job of providing a combination of production history, the place of the film in Ray's work, as well as some of the subtler aspects of what we see on the screen. Then we have a half-hour interview with Ray himself from a television series, as well as an interview with his widow, Susan. Both of these interviews are fascinating looks at Ray's process, while the third interview, with author Jonathan Lethem, discussing the impact of the film, both on him and the culture at large. The disc rounds out with the film's theatrical trailer. The usual Criterion booklet contains an essay on the film that covers much of Geoff Andrew's ground, but from a slightly different perspective, making it an excellent addition to the set.
There's a lot going on beneath the surface of Bigger Than Life, but if the viewer doesn't care to look deeper, the surface of the film might not be enough to hold interest. The story of Ed Avery's descent into madness has a stereotypical melodramatic quality to it that might turn the casual viewer off. Those not willing to look a little harder at Ray's film might do best to leave it alone.
The only thing that I can see missing from this Criterion set is a copy of the original New Yorker article that inspired Ray to make the film in the first place. It's probably a bit long for the booklet and would be awkward on screen so I can understand why it wouldn't be included, but it would be nice to have.
Bigger Than Life shows a cinematic craftsman at his best, while also giving us an alternative view of the nostalgia-laden American Fifties. A simultaneous condemnation of miracle drugs and middle-class conformity, Bigger Than Life can now be enjoyed by everyone with this fantastic release by Criterion.
If it stays off the cortisone, Bigger Than Life is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.55:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 1956
MPAA Rating: Not Rated