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Blu-Ray Review: Spectacular ‘Bigger Than Life’ Joins Criterion Collection

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CHICAGO – “God was wrong!” This line, spoken by the legendary James Mason in the remarkable “Bigger Than Life,” must have sent shockwaves through the audiences that heard it in 1956 and it’s not surprising that the film was shunned, buried, and only recently unearthed as a classic of its era. Directed by Nicholas Ray (“Rebel Without a Cause”), the film is the latest addition to the Criterion Collection and it’s stunningly good.

HollywoodChicago.com Blu-Ray Rating: 5.0/5.0
Blu-Ray Rating: 5.0/5.0

With echoes of themes that David Lynch would explore thirty years later, “Bigger Than Life” is a masterful examination of the lies perpetrated by the white picket fence of suburbia displayed on shows like “Leave It to Beaver” or “Father Knows Best”. It is about the dissolution of a nuclear family but it is also about SO much more. Above all else, Ray’s drama is a masterfully made piece of cinema with perfect performances, expert pacing, and spectacular technical expertise. Don’t miss it.

Bigger Than Life was released on DVD and Blu-ray on March 23rd, 2010.
Bigger Than Life was released on DVD and Blu-ray on March 23rd, 2010.
Photo credit: Courtesy of the Criterion Collection

The great James Mason stars as a middle class professor who Ray and writers Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum very subtly reveal is struggling to make ends meet when his health becomes a severe problem for the entire family. An unnamed affliction could kill him if he doesn’t start taking Cortisone injections. Well, our poor patriarch becomes addicted to the medication and starts to psychologically unravel; most notably in the way he becomes a disciplinarian with his son to dangerous extremes.

Bigger Than Life was released on DVD and Blu-ray on March 23rd, 2010.
Bigger Than Life was released on DVD and Blu-ray on March 23rd, 2010.
Photo credit: Courtesy of the Criterion Collection

Like one can tell “The Shining” isn’t going to end with a song-and-dance number, “Bigger Than Life” is a marvelous game of watching a man descend into madness. Mason’s performance is spectacular but it’s the framing and pacing of Ray, especially in the final act, that is simply amazing. I enjoy “Rebel Without a Cause,” but this is a superior film (and treads a lot of the same thematic territory if you think about it in its dissection of the American dream.) Rarely has the fictional sheen of middle class America been more perfectly deconstructed.

Co-starring Barbara Rush and Walter Matthau, “Bigger Than Life” is perfect. I can’t say enough good things about it. What’s so refreshing is that the Criterion Collection has unearthed a film that even this hardcore film historian had never seen. It’s remarkable that a movie this good, named one of the ten best of all time by Jean-Luc Godard, could be forgotten for so long. Leave it to the best DVD and Blu-ray studio in the world to give it the treatment it deserves.

“Bigger Than Life” is presented in a new, restored high-definition digital transfer with uncompressed monaural soundtrack and it’s technically flawless. Classic films often look overly polished in HD but such is not the case with Criterion transfers, which usually maintain the right amount of grain to still look like products of their era.

Excellent special features include a commentary by critic Geoff Andrew (“The Films of Nicholas Ray”), “Profile of Nicholas Ray” (1977) - a half-hour television interview with the director, New video appreciation of “Bigger Than Life” with author Jonathan Lethem, New video interview with Susan Ray - widow of the director and editor of “I Was Interrupted: Nicholas Ray on Making Movies,” Theatrical Trailer, and a booklet featuring an essay by critic and video maker B. Kite.

‘Bigger Than Life’ is released by The Criterion Collection and stars James Mason, Barbara Rush, and Walter Matthau. It was written by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum and directed by Nicholas Ray. It was released on Blu-ray and DVD on March 23rd, 2010. It is rated PG-13.

HollywoodChicago.com content director Brian Tallerico

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