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Bigger Than Life(1956)
When a friendly, successful suburban teacher and father is prescribed cortisone for a painful, possibly fatal affliction, he grows dangerously addicted to the experimental drug, resulting in his transformation into a psychotic and ultimately violent household despot.
For more about Bigger Than Life and the Bigger Than Life Blu-ray release, see the Bigger Than Life Blu-ray Review published by Dr. Svet Atanasov on March 10, 2010 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.5 out of 5.
Starring: James Mason, Barbara Rush, Walter Matthau, Robert F. Simon, Roland Winters, Rusty Lane
Director: Nicholas Ray
» See full cast & crew
Bigger Than Life Blu-ray Review
Reviewed by Dr. Svet Atanasov, March 10, 2010
Nominated for Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, Nicholas Ray's "Bigger Than Life" (1956) arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Criterion. The supplemental features on the disc include an exclusive audio commentary with film critic Geoff Andrew; video featurette with award-winning novelist Jonathan Lethem; video interview with Susan Ray, Nicholas Ray's widow, and the editor of "I Was Interrupted: Nicholas Ray on Making Movies"; "Profile of Nicholas Ray" - a half-hour 1977 TV interview with Nicholas Ray, hosted by critic Cliff Jahr; and trailer. The disc also contains a 24-page illustrated booklet containing B. Kite's essay "Somewhere in Suburbia." With optional English subtitles. Region-A "locked".
Ed Avery (James Mason, The Verdict) is a good man. He is also a good husband and father. His wife, Lou (Barbara Rush, It Came From Outer Space), is madly in love with him. His son, Richie (Christopher Olsen), admires him. At school, everyone agrees that Ed is also a good teacher. But being good is not enough to pay the bills, which is why Ed has secretly started working as a taxi cab dispatcher.
After an exhausting day, Ed goes home and collapses. He is immediately taken to a local hospital where a group of doctors quickly determine that he is seriously sick. There is no cure for Ed's illness, but there is this new miracle drug - cortisone - which the doctors think might help. If Ed agrees to be their guinea pig, they'll treat him. Of course, Ed agrees.
Soon, Ed is back at home. The drug has worked - now he can start teaching again. The family needs money to pay the mortgage, the car, the electric bill, the new medical bills. Keep taking the pills, the doctors tell Ed, and everything would be alright.
A couple of days later, Ed takes his wife to an expensive boutique and buys her a beautiful dress. Then, they head to "the best bike shop in town" to buy Richie a gift. Ed;s wife and son are concerned that these presents might cripple the family budget, but Ed does not care - it is time that they stopped pretending to be a middle class American family and start acting like one.
Better Than Life is one truly powerful film. On one hand, it tells the disturbing story of a sick man and his gradual character transformation, which affects everyone around him, from his wife and son to his best friends and colleagues. On the other hand, it tells an even more disturbing story - about the illusion of middle class prosperity in America. Both are closely intertwined, but the second story is certainly the more effective one.
It is hard to believe that Nicholas Ray shot Better Than Life some 54 years ago, as practically all of the points his film makes about the vicious cycle American middle class families belong to are debated in our society today - the craze to own a posh suburban home we cannot afford but wish to because of the status it gives us, our dependency on expensive drugs, the unrealistic cost of health care and its disastrous effects on the way we live our lives.
According to Ray, fear is what keeps this vicious cycle alive - before he becomes sick, Ed is afraid that his family cannot afford what it needs and gets a second job; after he becomes sick, Ed is terrified that his family cannot keep what it already owns because of the massive medical bills he must pay. He collapses again, but this time around so do those around him. Lies are spoken; dreams are shattered; murder is considered.
At its core, however, Better Than Life remains a notably expressionistic film, one filled with classic horror and suspense overtones, which is ultimately what makes it so unique. Ray's use of shadow, in particular, is incredibly important as it consciously points to the dual structure of his film and specifically the conflicting nature of the reality Ed's family belongs to.
With such a wide variety of themes and overtones, however, the film does not even come remotely close to providing a satisfying closure for its story. Instead, it simply stops, suggesting that the partially restored order in Ed's family is incredibly brittle, temporary, obviously misleading. As is the sense of security the American middle class exudes.
Bigger Than Life Blu-ray, Video Quality
Presented in its ori9ginal aspect ratio of 2.55:1, encoded with MPEG-4 AVC and granted a 1080p transfer, Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Criterion.
The following text appears in the booklet provided with the Blu-ray disc:
"For this new high-definition digital transfer, the original 35mm camera negative was scanned at 4K resolution on an Oxberry 6400 Liquid Gate scanner and color graded and restored at 2K resolution. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed using the DaVinci Revival system and Pixel Farm's PFClean system. Arri's Relativity system was used for light grain reduction."
This is yet another solid, extremely competent high-definition transfer courtesy of Criterion. Fine object detail is excellent, clarity pleasing and contrast handled with utmost precision. The suggestive shadows, for example, that you would see during the second half of the film, after James Mason's character becomes violent, look terrific. The color-scheme is also very convincing - blues, greens, grays, blacks and whites look rich yet natural. Additionally, as stated in the quote above, light grain reduction has been performed, but there is still a pleasing amount of film grain that has been preserved. Edge-enhancement and macroblocking are never a serious issue of concern; neither is digital noise. On the contrary, even during the indoor scenes, where the lighting is minimal, the image quality is very impressive. Furthermore, I did not detect any stability issues while viewing the film to report in this review. I also did not spot any disturbing cuts, warps, splices, scratches, or stains. To sum it all up, this Blu-ray release of Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life represents a solid upgrade over all previous releases of the film, which is why I strongly recommend that you consider adding it to your film library. (Note: This is a Region-A "locked" Blu-ray disc. Therefore, you must have a native Region-A or Region-Free PS3 or SA in order to access its content).
Bigger Than Life Blu-ray, Audio Quality
There is only one audio track on this Blu-ray disc: English LPCM 1.0. For the record, Criterion have provided optional English subtitles for the main feature. When turned on, they appear inside the image frame.
I don't have any major reservations with the English LPCM 1.0 track. The dialog is clear, clean and easy to follow. I did not detect any balance issues with David Raksin's music score either. I did notice, however, a number of improvements in terms of stability when I compared the a few scenes with the BFI SDVD release. Finally, pops, cracks, or excessive hissing do not plague the English LPCM 1.0 track.
Bigger Than Life Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Profile of Nicholas Ray - a half-hour 1977 TV interview with Nicholas Ray, hosted by critic Cliff Jahr, provides a revealing look at the director's thematic interests, his love of actors, and his unique perspective on cinema. I strongly encourage you to find the time to see the interview as there are some fascinating comments by Ray addressing his work with James Dean on Rebel Without a Cause, as well as some surprising revelations about his relationship with Warner Brothers. In English, not subtitled. (29 min, 1080i).
Jonathan Lethem - a video featurette with award-winning novelist Jonathan Lethem (Chronic City), who talks about Bigger Than Life, one of his favorite films. Lethem's deconstruction of the film is excellent, and particularly his comments addressing the film's complex dual structure - protagonist vs. American middle class. In English, not subtitled. (28 min, 1080p).
Susan Ray - a video interview with Susan Ray, Nicholas Ray's widow, and the editor of I Was Interrupted: Nicholas Ray on Making Movies. Here, Mrs. Ray talks about her husband's passion for cinema and his work on Bigger Than Life. In English, not subtitled. (22 min, 1080p).
Commentary - an audio commentary with film critic Geoff Andrew, author of The Films of Nicholas Ray, recorded exclusively for the Criterion Collection in 2009. Andrew offers a strong, very informative dissection of Bigger Than Life as well as Ray's career as a film maker. I also thought that this was a very honest commentary, one that does not simply glamorize Ray, the film, and its cast.
Trailer - a trailer for Bigger Than Life. (3 min, 1080p).
Booklet - a 24-page illustrated booklet containing B. Kite's essay "Somewhere in Suburbia" (the author is a writer and video maker living in Brooklyn. His essays have appeared in such publications as Cinema Scope, The Believer, Trafic, and the The Village Voice, as well as in Michael Atkinson's Exile Cinema anthology and the Masters of Cinema DVD booklets for Muriel and Tokyo Sonata).
Bigger Than Life Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Arguably director Nicholas Ray's best film, Bigger Than Life arrives on Blu-ray with a striking transfer that should meet the quality expectations of even the most demanding amongst film aficionados. The supplemental features included on the disc are also very strong. I particularly enjoyed Cliff Jahr's conversation with director Ray and Jonathan Lethem's intelligent analysis. VERY HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Bigger Than Life Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Criterion New Year's Card Hints at Upcoming Blu-ray Titles - January 1, 2010
The Criterion Collection asked resident “wacky” artist, Jason Polan, to help them ring in the New Year. The result is a cryptic e-card that features numerous obscure references to upcoming titles. Members of the blu-ray.com forum and other boards have tried to ...
• Criterion to Make Bigger Than Life Blu-ray - December 15, 2009
Nicholas Ray gets his first BD release: the Criterion Collection has announced 'Bigger than Life' for release on Blu-ray on March 23, 2010. Though ignored at the time of its release, this drama starring James Mason is now recognized as one of the great American ...
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