Director Nicholas Ray was never one to shy away from controversy. In fact, a retrospective of his films suggests that he thrived on it. Remarkably, despite changing times and audience tastes a good many of his films hold up under close scrutiny. Some have even improved with age. Of this latter ilk is Bigger Than Life (1956) a thoroughly unsettling excursion into substance abuse/addiction; taboo subject matter undeniably ahead of its time. Based on medical writer Berton Roueche's New Yorker article 'Ten Feet Tall', the film stars James Mason as Ed Avery: schoolteacher and family man. Ed is the most congenial sort. He works hard, loves his wife, Lou (Barbara Rush) and young son, Ritchie (Christopher Olsen) and does his absolute best to be a good provider. In fact, he's even taken a part time job as a taxi dispatcher to help make ends meet. Everybody likes Ed. Still, his best friend, phys-ed teacher, Wally Gibbs (Walter Matthau) thinks Ed is wasting his time in the education system. He should have a more high profile job.
So far, so good. A rosy post-war picture postcard of the American family. Regrettably, this idyllic snapshot is not to last. Ed is stricken with a strange illness. He suffers excruciating pain and blackouts until Dr. Norton (Robert Simon) diagnoses him with polyarteritis nodosa, a congenital and potentially fatal stricture of the arteries. To improve Ed's blood flow, Doc Norton prescribes cortisone pills. But the cure comes with a warning. Too much cortisone can be mind-altering and dangerous. Ed agrees to follow his doctor's orders. But once the genie has been let out of its bottle Ed begins to abuse the drug. If a little makes him feel good then a lot should make him feel spectacular...right? Wrong! Under the influence Ed is transformed from a mild-mannered Jekyll into a sadistic Hyde. He chides a roomful of parents during parent/teacher interviews for raising idiots and suggests that the best thing any adult can do is to beat their children into submission until the age of consent.
Naturally these rather...uh...'progressive views' clash with the rigid 'picket fence' conventions of the Eisenhower generation. Ed quickly finds himself on the edge of reason and sanity. He abruptly quits his job at the cab company and then isolates Lou and Ritchie in their home. Determined to 'make a man' of his son, Ed tortures Ritchie with complex math equations and relentlessly trains him in football until Ritchie comes to hate his father. Lou is patient, but realizes Ed is out of control. In his penultimate descent into madness Ed admonishes God, then decides that Ritchie must be destroyed. He locks Lou in the closet and heads up to Ritchie's room with a pair of scissors. Thankfully, Wally intervenes. The two struggle and Ed is knocked unconscious. Placed under Doc Norton's care for detoxification, Ed emerges from his nightmare unscathed after the ill effects of the cortisone have worn off.
At the time of its release Bigger Than Life was a controversial box office dud. In truth the degenerative effects of cortisone on Ed's character are exaggerated and simplistic. But the strength of James Mason's performance carries off the coup of believability. In retrospect Mason's entire career excelled at creating such weak-minded men easily swayed by their vices. Bigger Than Life ranks among his most diabolically compelling star turns. In fact, he carries the show. Screenwriters Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum move their story along with economy but the real steam in this piston is James Mason. The brief scenes without him (where Wally and Lou debate about what should be done about Ed's deteriorating mental health) are painfully obtuse and drag. The rest of the cast is just filler, an oversight from which the reasonably taut narrative never entirely recovers. This isn't to suggest Bigger Than Life is a stinker. In fact, as early as 1963 French critics were praising Ray and the film for its frank, overt depiction of drug abuse. But that was 1963. Today, Bigger Than Life seems more mellow and tame. Nevertheless, Mason is magnetic.
Criterion Home Video delivers a very impressive 1080p Blu-ray of this edgy classic. The original 35mm Cinemascope image has been scanned at 4k resolution (distilled to 2k) and is simply gorgeous. Criterion has performed extensive restoration work to ensure a solid and richly textured visual presentation.
Colors pop off the screen yet look very natural. Fine detail is exceptionally realized. Wow, doesn't begin to describe the image. The atypical problems of Cinemascope (grainy dissolves in transition between scenes) is absent. The audio is a crisp and clean 1.0 LPCM - not the most astounding sonic experience, but competent and pleasing nonetheless. Extras include Geoff Andrew's thorough audio commentary, a vintage profile on Nicholas Ray that is a tad hammy, a featurette with Jonathan Lethem extolling the virtues and many subliminal themes from the movie, a brief interview with Nicholas Ray's widow and the original theatrical trailer. Criterion also includes 'Somewhere in Suburbia' - an essay by B. Kite. All in all, very nicely packed, this kit and recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)