Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life – Criterion Collection #507 [Blu-ray Review]

Captain Nemo. Humbert Humbert. Brutus. Eduard Seibert. ¬†Richard Straker. Phillip Vandamm. All are classic and iconic characters played by none other than one of the great actors of the 20th century, James Mason. But it’s his role as Ed Avery in the film Bigger Than Life that sent shock waves in the film industry, broke down the idealistic nature of the nuclear family and has been highly praised by critics and filmmakers alike for the last 50 years.

Ed Avery is the ideal father, husband and friend. He’s a schoolteacher and also does a few nights a week as a cabbie dispatcher, but he doesn’t tell his wife Lou (Barbara Rush) about the job, instead lying that he has school meetings to go to. She becomes suspicious and after a fight, Ed passes out from severe pain, which he’s been having periodically for the last 6 months. He comes clean about his other job with Lou and this is when the doctor tells him the bad news. Ed has a rare inflammation of his arteries and he probably has about 6 months to a year to live. The only way to possibly survive is a new ‘miracle drug’, the hormone cortisone, which has done wonders in initial tests with other patients. So of course he chooses the drug because he can’t leave his wife and child all alone in the world.

Cortisone does the trick, giving Ed a new lease on life and the pain is the last thing on his mind. But we slowly see the cracks that are starting to become wider and more jagged throughout the film. He starts to take too many pills and starts to say irrational things to his own wife and son. He denounces the school system at a parent/teacher conference, saying that we are all raising ‘mental midgets’ in this world and if he had it his way, we’d go back to the old ways of teaching.

He’s unraveling at the seems, minute by minute, in this present day Jekyll and Hyde story. There’s even a shot of Ed, trying to look like a playboy, Hugh Hefner himself even, and becomes a bit too cocky at his wife, who slams the mirror and it shatters, showing Ed in a multitude of angles and a distorted visage. It’s partly thanks to the directing style of Nicholas Ray (who only a year before this, in 1955, unleashed to the world one James Dean and his iconic role of Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause).

Ultimately he becomes completely Hyde like, his wild mood swings becoming steadily more intense and in one of the more tense scenes ever put to film, has a psychotic episode which threatens the safety of his family, his friend Wally Gibbs (played wonderfully by Walter Matthau) and even himself.

The Criterion Collection is releasing this under-seen gem on DVD and Blu-ray. The Blu-ray has a newly restored high-definition print of the film, where the colors are as vibrant as ever. Bigger Than Life was shot in the always amazing Cinemascope, and its cinematography by Joe MacDonald, is nothing short of perfect.

This film was widely ignored in its theatrical run back in 1956 but now is highly regarded as one of the finest achievements in film from the 1950’s. Think of it as a distant cousin to Leave It To Beaver and Father Knows Best, showing what problems and obstacles middle class families of suburbia had in that era. It wasn’t always about apple pie on the windowsill in every household.

Photo courtesy of ¬† The Criterion Collection

[Note from the Editor: you can find our initial announcment of this and all of the March 2010 Criterion Collection releases here.]

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5 Comments

  • Fantastic movie and better still, a well thought out review detailing why this film deserves to be in the pantheon of Criterion films. Thank you, Mr. McCormick, for giving an amazing film the credit it's due.

  • Fantastic movie and better still, a well thought out review detailing why this film deserves to be in the pantheon of Criterion films. Thank you, Mr. McCormick, for giving an amazing film the credit it's due.

  • I remember seeing amazing clips of this movie years ago in Martin Scorcese’s Journey Through American Movies. Seeing the whole thing after all this time cemented my fascination. A truly great movie that I’ve watched three times now. And as amazing as James Mason is, Walther Matthau is the true revelation here. He was always great, but it is wonderful to see him here pre-caricature.

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