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Bigger Than Life (Criterion Collection)
Never before available on home video domestically, The Criterion Collection has finally released Nicholas Ray's groundbreaking Bigger Than Life. It's a claustrophobic, small-scale portrait of 1950s suburbia torn apart by a family man's addiction to prescription cortisone. James Mason (who also produced) gave a defining performance in the lead role, undergoing a gripping transformation from middle class dad to psychotic would-be prophet of anti-middle class revolution. Released in 1956 to a largely negative reception, it's no surprise that Americans of the 1950s - eased into self-satisfaction with the realization of the postwar American dream - rejected this depiction of small town lives being violently rent asunder by a repressed subconscious cut loose.
Ed Avery (Mason) is a middle class schoolteacher, who lives in a large house on a pleasant street with his wife Lou (Barbara Rush) and young son Bobby (Christopher Olsen). Plagued by mysterious recurring pain, Avery is prescribed cortisone, a then-new "miracle drug" that saves his life. The side effects, however, cause creeping madness in Avery, who begins to envision himself as a hero to society, the savior of his family, and the protector of all morality and ethics. With the help of his friend Wally (Walter Matthau), Lou struggles to escape Ed's increasingly tight clutches and seek aid from his doctors.
James Mason owns Bigger Than Life. As the film's producer, he was no doubt attracted to this challenging, multi-layered character as an opportunity to showcase his range as an actor. From the paranoid Captain Nemo of Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, to the desperate Irish bank robber in Odd Man Out and the loftily delusional Humbert Humbert in Kubrick's Lolita, Mason's performances are each deft, suave studies in understated British charm and restrained emotion. Mason's presence - even in the junk he did in the late '60s and early '70s - almost always guarantees that a film is worth watching, at least once. And then there's his Brutus in Mankiewicz's Julius Caesar, to say nothing of North by Northwest or A Star is Born.
In Bigger Than Life, Mason's Ed Avery is a tightly wound suburbanite, at pains to put people at ease - going so far as to secretly take a second job as a taxi cab dispatcher to bring in extra money at home. From this pressured but likeable starting point, Avery descends - or, as he might perceive it, ascends - into a fevered, messianic madness brought about by the psychotic effects of cortisone abuse.
There is a lot in this film that prefigures David Lynch's Blue Velvet, primarily the conception of suburban life as harboring deep-set layers of delusion and darkness beneath the well-manicured lawns and shiny, detailed vehicles. Also of note in this sense is the production design, which utilizes dark, saturated earth tones that anticipate the palette of Lynch's film - there are huge walls of deep gray-green and slate blue, as well as dull browns and tans. These heavy colors absorb light, sapping the environment of happiness - especially in the case of the Averys' home. As Ed's madness grows, Lou and Bobby are effectively made prisoners in the house, and it's at this point (about midway through the film) that the set grows into a frightening, oppressive character all its own. Those colors make the walls look impenetrable, and the house begins to bear down upon the family like looming death.
The screenplay is credited to Cyril Hume and James Bond scribe Richard Maibaum, although there were uncredited contributions from Gavin Lambert, director Ray, Clifford Odets, and Mason himself. It's an elegant script. It patiently builds Avery's madness in an incremental manner that aids a sense of realism; his transformation and the messianic overtones of his dialogue - particularly during a scene at a PTA meeting - are brilliant revelations of a tortured subconscious. The PTA scene unveils the depths of Avery's psychosis at the same time that it turns his wholesome image inside out: from a mild-mannered schoolteacher emerges a child-hating prophet extolling the virtues of rigorous moral and ethical indoctrination. Following this jarring outburst, Avery exudes a twisted commitment to his son, taking full personal responsibility for the boy's upbringing - at home. This entails the transformation of the Avery home into the aforementioned prison-like environment, with Lou and Bobby bullied into a state of paralyzing fear.
It's unfortunate that the role of Lou is somewhat underwritten; she is too weak-willed. It's a conundrum, however, because a stronger wife would have meant a weaker Ed, and that could have rendered the momentum behind Ed's psychosis less compelling. Still, the conflict Ed faces may have been more realistic and more sympathetic if he had been forced to contend with a wife who showed more backbone.
Bigger Than Life remains a challenging, relevant picture because the American middle class and the development of suburban sprawl has done nothing but grow over the last fifty years. The concept of suburbia as a deadening neutral zone where families go to stagnate is, accordingly, even more powerful a vision now than it was in 1956. Ray's smooth use of Cinemascope and command of his production team couple with James Mason's masterful performance, resulting a picture that is finally - and rightfully - claiming its place as an American classic.
The Criterion Collection presents Bigger Than Life in an enhanced widescreen transfer replicating its original Cinemascope aspect ratio of 2.55:1. The transfer is a beaut. There was a predilection in the 1950s for overlit images. That cannot be fairly said of Bigger Than Life. Its dark, earthy color palette is brought to life with a feeling of real density and weight. Blacks are rock-solid. Skin tones are lifelike. The fact that this film was not a success upon its original release appears to have worked in its favor from a conservation point of view. This could have been shot yesterday for all its clarity.
The clear mono soundtrack is free of hiss or other distractions. A nice clean-up job renders the track very listenable, with a feeling of range and depth despite the fact that it's single-channel. The somewhat bombastic score by David Raksin is occasionally regrettable.
Criterion has assembled a small group of strong, informative bonus features. First, we have a Commentary track by Geoff Andrew, an English film critic and author of The Films of Nicholas Ray. The track is dull by Criterion standards, with Andrew relying too heavily on descriptions of on-screen action and self-evident points of character and story. The other supplements are more rewarding. Profile of Nicholas Ray (28:45) is a 1977 episode of the television program Camera Three, hosted by critic Cliff Jahr. It's a fascinating late-career interview that covers the high points of Ray's career. Suburban Subversion: Jonathan Lethem on Bigger Than Life (27:13) is an interesting discussion of Bigger Than Life by the novelist, who counts it as one of his personal favorites. Creating from Chaos: Susan Ray on Nicholas Ray (21:59) is a newly-produced video piece with Ray's widow, Susan, reminiscing about her late husband and the way he made films. Finally, we have the feature's original Theatrical Trailer (2:42), personally presented by producer-star James Mason.
Bigger Than Life is a unique contribution to American cinema of the 1950s. A wholly original and very dark look at the rip current beneath the surface of suburban existence, its relevance and impact are, if anything, stronger today than ever before. Mason's performance alone makes this worth a look, but a solid screenplay and imaginative direction by Ray push it into "classic" territory. Highly recommended.