The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents June 2010 Return to Table of Contents
Robin Hood
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
Bigger Than Life
The Natural
Corman Duo
ASC Close-Up
Bigger Than Life (1956)
Blu-ray Edition
2.55:1 (High Definition 1080p)
Digital Monaural
The Criterion Collection, $39.95

“Mom, isn’t Dad acting a little foolish?” worries young Richie Avery (Christopher Olsen). Indeed, there is something terribly wrong with his father, Ed (James Mason). Beneath the slick, utopian veneer of the Eisenhower-era American suburbs, Ed has become something other than an affable husband and father. His wife, Lou (Barbara Rush), helplessly looks on with confusion and then fear as Ed transforms into a manic obsessive person with delusional outbursts of rage and, ultimately, violence.    

Long respected in the community as a popular teacher, Ed finds that his transformation makes similar waves at work, where his behavior in the classroom becomes increasingly aggressive and antagonistic. Even his good friend and colleague, gym teacher Wally Gibbs (Walter Matthau), cannot seem to find the man he once knew beneath Ed’s bravado and superiority complex.

Based on an article called “Ten Feet Tall” that was written by Burton Roueche and published in The New Yorker in 1955, Nicholas Ray’s audacious drama Bigger Than Life unabashedly deals with a seemingly average person who is helplessly thrust into addiction. Roueche’s article dealt with the unexpected side effects of Cortisone on patients who had been prescribed the drug in the early 1950s. When we first see Ed, his organized world is interrupted by terrible bouts of pain from a spinal condition that he ultimately finds could be life threatening. After laborious, painful tests and long hospital stays, Ed begins a Cortisone regimen that quickly eases his pain. He accepts taking the drug as a means to a pain-free future but is eventually betrayed by his reliance on and abuse of the powerful “miracle cure.”

Ray, a director whose films often involve personal crises and the ways in which they’re brought about by oppressive external factors, read Roueche’s article while doing press for Rebel Without a Cause in Europe. He decided the article would be the basis of his next film; he believed the addiction/breakdown story was the perfect vehicle to convey his ideas about life in contemporary America. He knew the film had to have powerful visuals and wanted to use the CinemaScope process. He wisely tapped Joe MacDonald, ASC to help make Bigger Than Life just that.

MacDonald used a bold, wide Cinemascope canvas, favoring a generally realistic and colorful appearance but making room for expressionistic lighting and shadows to convey a sense of dread. The Criterion Collection recently released Bigger Than Life on Blu-ray, and MacDonald’s work has been meticulously and luminously rendered in this transfer, which conveys a truly film-like experience. MacDonald’s deep, multi-layered shadows are extraordinary, as are the eye-popping primary colors. The film’s epic 2.55:1 compositions have excellent clarity and depth of field, with natural film grain evident. The presentation has a uniform sharpness that never has the feel of digital interference. When directly compared to the previously issued standard-definition Region 2 DVD, this image reveals much more within low-light situations and shadows. It is also sharper, with a more appealing and natural rendering of colors. The monaural audio is also an improvement, with better amplification and a generally cleaner sound delivered through the center channel.

Criterion has packaged Bigger Than Life with strong supplements, including an informative, thoughtful audio commentary by Geoff Andrew, critic and author of The Films of Nicholas Ray, and a 28-minute, provocative interview with contemporary novelist Jonathan Lethem. Also included are a 22-minute interview with Ray’s widow, Susan, and an absorbing, 30-minute TV interview with Ray from 1977. Finally, the film’s vibrant theatrical trailer and an observant essay by B. Kite are included.

Bigger Than Life is a quietly subversive film that plays as an indictment of the suburban lifestyle of its period, which was defined by an increasingly materialistic and conformist culture. This audacious and convincing portrait of pain and anxiety continues to radiate its power and relevance in this excellent new presentation.

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