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Customer reviews

4.5 out of 5 stars
Bigger Than Life [1956] [DVD]
Format: DVD|Change
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on 4 April 2008
This DVD is extremely well produced, with a crisp, sharp picture, faultless sound and careful subtitling. The original cinematic trailer is included, as is an interesting 25min discussion between two American film critics, who make some good points about the film without being too irritating.

Very highly recommended.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 12 March 2011
Bigger Than Life is directed by Nicholas Ray and stars James Mason (who also co-wrote and produced the film), Barbara Rush & Walter Matthau. It's about a school teacher and family man whose life spins out of control after he is diagnosed with a serious life threatening illness that leads to him becoming addicted to cortisone.

A box office flop on release, the film was considered controversial with its attack on the nuclear family residing in conformist suburbia. Yet today many modern day critics, coupled with high praise dealt by the likes of Jean-Luc Godard & François Truffaut, has given the film a new lease of life. So much so it's considered by some to be an ahead of its time masterpiece. While I personally think that masterpiece is a bit too strong a statement, there is no denying that Ray's movie is a potent piece of work backed up by yet another magnificent turn from James Mason.

Excellently adapted by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum from a New Yorker article written by Berton Roueché, the film is also technically smart. Shot in Cinemascope, Ray & cinematographer Joseph MacDonald brilliantly use bold colours and expressionistic shadows around the domestic home to convey atmosphere and meaning. But it's with the story, and its subsequent interpretations that Bigger Than Life soars high on the interest scale. There's many musings on it available at the click of a mouse, from critics prepared to go deep with it, to a thought process delivered by the genius that was Truffaut himself. They are there if one is inclined to peruse either prior or post viewing of this most intriguing picture.

Me? I have my own thoughts, but that's the point, and the thrill of diving into a film of this type. To form ones own interpretation and to then open up to other perspectives is one of cinemas great little peccadilloes. See this if you can. 7.5/10
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on 28 April 2011
Another lurid melodrama from mid-fifties, small town America, full of aspiration and repressed desire. James Mason suffers from a painful rare medical condition that can only be controlled by doses of the new wonder drug, cortisone! For which you can read cocaine or any other addictive substance, because soon James can't control his need, nor a desire to chew the wallpaper.

Meanwhile the fifties wife, Barbara Rush, has chosen to love honour and OBEY, leaving the son (at a time when sons called their fathers 'sir') to the tender mercies of James, almost to the point of biblical sacrifice.

The doctors are no help, getting into huddles like gangsters and talking complete medispeak gibberish.

Nicholas Ray is a darling of the auteurs, stamping his own mark indelibly on what is ostensibly a standard Hollywood product. Subtexts galore, if you want them, and, if you don't believe that Ray is in self-reflective mode in this film, play the bathroom mirror sequence, before the smashing, in slo-mo.

This film has be seen in widescreen for best effect. Originally shot in 35mm CinemaScope, colour by DeLuxe at 20th Century-Fox, the restrained, but strange tones of greys, and hues of green and brown are offset by bursts of red and orange, adding a melancholic feel to the whole. The sound is very good and the subtitles for us deafies are great.

Not the masterpiece that many claim, but a must-see for film enthusiasts.
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HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERon 23 August 2007
Bigger Than Life happily tears down all the 1950s values it starts off celebrating, making even fewer friends on its original release than Fight Club did among the remnants of the Moral Majority. If producer and star James Mason isn't exactly credible as an All-American teacher and, briefly, one-time college football star, he's a lot more credible as a mild-mannered schoolteacher turned egomaniac psychotic as his over-medication on the Cortisone that keeps him alive has disastrous effects on his nuclear family: there aren't many actors who could pull off a scene that sees him with a pair of scissors in one hand and a Bible in the other reading the story of Abraham and Isaac as a parenting guide. And there aren't many directors who would have dared in the ultra-conservative 1950s to use the Bible not as a source of peace but of torment as it becomes clear that he intends to go through with God's command to Abraham - and, when reminded that God spared Isaac, would have the balls to have his `hero' reply "God was wrong!"

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.
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on 30 April 2015
Some will pick Johnny Guitar, others will pick Rebel without a cause but for me Nicholas Ray's best movie is this.James Mason plays a happily married school teacher who also works at the local cab company as receptionist in order to bring up his wages.His wife played by Barbra Rush doesn't know this and suspects he's having an affair.One day though he suffers a near fatal heart attack and while recuperating in hospital the doctors recommend a new drug called cortisone which they test out on him.At first all is well but soon he begins acting strangely until he becomes almost psychotic and his wife and son end up in the firing line.This was daring stuff in 50's conservative America as the American dream is turned on its head.Mason(who also produced) is superb as is Barbra Rush as his confused wife and a special mention must go to Christopher Olsen as Richie his son.Co-starring Walter Matthau and ravishingly photographed in Cinemascope(count how many children are wearing red in the opening shot) this is one of the bravest movies of the 50's. God was wrong.
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on 13 October 2011
An astonishing piece of work and one of the seminal films of the 1950s, Nicholas Ray's view of an archetypal suburban family, seemingly perfect on the surface, that briskly deteriorates when the father (James Mason) has a severe reaction to a new drug (Cortisone) that manifests itself in severe mood swings and delusions of superiority and a Messiah complex that threatens the safety of his wife (Barbara Rush) and son (Christopher Olsen). It's a disturbing film on many levels and so dark that it's no surprise that it was a commercial failure when first released. Mason is excellent, balancing the complex psychosis without going over the top. In the best performance of her career, the underrated Barbara Rush has the more difficult "wife" role and young Christopher Olsen (squeezing in this solid performance in between equally solid work for Hitchcock and Sirk) avoids the trap that mars so many child performances in 50s cinema. Ray, along with his cinematographer Joseph MacDonald (THE SAND PEBBLES), make expert use of the CinemaScope frame and David Raksin provides a strong underscore. Co-starring Kipp Hamilton and Walter Matthau in one of his early film roles. Highly recommended.

The Criterion DVD is a handsome anamorphic wide screen (2.35) transfer.
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VINE VOICEon 3 September 2007
"Bigger Than Life" is a suburban melodrama directed by Nicholas Ray, the director of other 50s classics like "In A Lonely Place"(1950) and "Rebel Without A Cause" (1955). The film is based on an article in the The New Yorker, "Ten Feet Tall" by Berton Roueche, about the effects of wonder-drug Cortisone which when misused can result in mood swings, personalities changes and psychosis.
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)
Christopher Olsen


Joe McDonald (My Darling Clementine,1946; Niagara,1952; How to Marry a Millionaire,1953)

The BFI DVD transfer is excellent.
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VINE VOICEon 6 May 2012
Ed Avery (James Mason) is a typical (though idealized) 1950s husband and father who is facing serious health problem. To save his life, he begins taking the controversial new drug Cortisone which soon brings about a major - and quite shocking - personality transformation.

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.
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on 10 May 2014
Yet another example of where the filmmakers find it difficult to let the drama speak for itself. In places one could close their eyes and imagine themselves in the Royal Festival Hall trying out a new orchestral piece for full orchestra and written in diatonic notation. Outstanding performances all round. Apart from that, I cannot improve upon what other reviewers have had to say.
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on 8 December 2017
A brilliant film of the fifties. I agree with all the positive reviews. An important aspect, however, it's time to release this 1956
classic at a realistic price Collector's.often look for the original issue -viewers and many fill buffs look for sensible value.
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