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Bigger Than Life  [DVD]
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BIGGER THAN LIFE
A Film by Nicholas Ray
Bigger Than Life is one of the greatest American films of the 1950s, a high point in the careers of lead actor James Mason and Nicholas Ray.
Mason gives a towering performance as Ed Avery, a happily married schoolteacher who agrees to take a new miracle drug when diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease. It is not long before the drug begins producing malevolent and murderous side-effects that bring to the fore all of Ed's long-repressed frustrations with his life.
Mason's support is exceptional: Barbara Rush as Ed's devoted wife, Christopher Olsen as his cruelly punished son and Walter Matthau as his faithful colleague.
One of cinema's most persuasive portraits of psychological turmoil, the film also succeeds magnificently as searing melodrama and subversive social critique, with Ray, his scriptwriters and cinematographer achieving a perfect balance between emotional realism and expressionist allegory.
- Full-feature commentary by Edward Buscombe
- New filmed conversation between Jim Jarmusch and Jonathan Rosenbaum
- Extracts from 1969 interview with Nicholas Ray
- Original theatrical trailer
- Fully illustrated booklet with essays by Geoff Andrews, Jeanine Basinger, Susan Ray, and biographies
USA | 1956 | colour | English language, with optional hard-of-hearing subtitles | 91 minutes | Ratio 2.35:1 (16x9) anamorphic | Region 2 DVD
'An outstanding movie, remarkable for its seriousness and daring.' --The Guardian
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Top customer reviews
James Mason is superb in this role. At first, he's charming and lovable, but gradually morphs into a horrifying monster. He had me utterly convinced he was really vile and very dangerous. Barbara Rush gives a good performance as the steadfast housewife and mother who loves him, no matter how grotesque he becomes. Walter Matthau is likable in a supporting role as Ed's co-worker. The movie was directed by Nicholas Ray ("Rebel Without a Cause") and had some surprisingly blunt and realistic dialogue for 1956.
This story is even more relevant today with so much drug abuse and dependence. Mason's transformation from `Father Knows Best' to `Mr. Hyde' is utterly believable and frightening. Good movie.
Nicholas Ray's use of CinemaScope (a format Mason despised but which was forced on him by the studio) is exemplary and unfussy, as is his use of light and camera angles - as Mason's ego expands, he is shot from lower angles, while even his shadow towers over those of the rest of his family in the same room. There's also a beautifully staged scene as a still gentle Mason follows his wife through the house turning out the lights in amorous pursuit, oblivious to her suspicions that he's having an affair - not to mention a great lecture on moral values at a PTA meeting as Mason offers his new near-Nazi theory of education. Great stuff and great to see it here in its original CinemaScope ratio.
Extras include an 8-minute audio extract from an interview Nicholas Ray gave at the NFT which has nothing whatever to do with the film (it's mainly about his experiences at Fox making The True Story of Jesse James and the limitations of independent filmmaking), a lengthy video conversation between filmmaker Jim Jarmusch and critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, an audio commentary by Ed Buscombe, a badly faded-to-pink trailer introduced by James Mason (informing us that "a handful of hope became a fistful of hate!") and a booklet.
One of the side-effects of Cortisone is that it causes a feeling of euphoria which can be addictive as in the case of Ed Avery, performed brilliantly by James Mason. Ed Avery is a model of middle-class suburbia, a school teacher with a wife and son and on the the surface they appear to be happy. The drugs effects release him from this vision of marital bliss, the American dream of the nuclear family and in the process he becomes a tyrant.
Like "Rebel Without A Cause" it sets out to undermine what is regarded as suitable 50s morality. Nicholas Ray along with Douglas Sirk were masters at handling this sort of material and with this film Ray utilises wonderfully expressionistic lighting, cinemascope and gorgeous colour to achieve his objective. This somewhat rare film which was a failure upon it's release is highly recommended.
Jean-Luc Godard in 1963 placed this film in the top 10 American sound pictures up to that point.
James Mason (Odd Man Out,1947; A Star is Born,1954)
Barbara Rush (When Worlds Collide,1951; It Came From Outer Space;1953)
Walter Matthau (A Face in the Crowd;1957)
Joe McDonald (My Darling Clementine,1946; Niagara,1952; How to Marry a Millionaire,1953)
The BFI DVD transfer is excellent.
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