Criterion Collection DVD Review: Bigger Than Life (1956)

Now Available to Own

Without the comedy club setting of a smoky nightclub complete with a man standing in front of a brick wall explaining that “childhood is a congenital disease and the purpose of education is to cure it,” you know something is rotten in Denmark.

However, when the movie reveals that the man on the soapbox isn't a comic but an elementary school teacher, husband and father whacked out of his mind on Cortisone in 1950s suburbia, it becomes fairly obvious that what we're dealing with is one hell of a subversive analysis of American life that's a few shades more surreal than director Nicholas Ray's iconic, gritty earlier piece, Rebel Without a Cause.

Released on precisely the same day that Father Knows Best bowed to moviegoers, Ray's remarkably daring yet overall obscure in the mainstream cult classic Bigger Than Life uses the same subtextual techniques employed in works like High Noon, All That Heaven Allows, Twelve Angry Men and other films to subtly comment on the lives of the idealized middle classes.

While the production design of a dinner table sequence is an obvious influence on Sam Mendes' American Beauty and you get the sense that the danger of group-think or dull idle conformity may have led to certain tonal aspects of Edward Scissorhands, Pleasantville and others, overall Life's impact on David Lynch cannot be understated.

Via this lovingly preserved transfer of Life on DVD and Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection, it's fascinating to see the way its presentation and remarkably gorgeous craftsmanship is echoed in Blue Velvet but also the clear through-line that leads directly into his enormously successful series Twin Peaks wherein the “bigger than life” monster proved to be much more than just a talker and -- as other critics have pointed out -- may have in fact killed Laura Palmer.

Yet in this movie – just like in William Friedkin's The Exorcist, which also comes from factual source material-- we aren't dealing with an overt Hitchcockian Psycho or murderous Strangers on a Train who lurk within a Shadow of a Doubt but in fact, an individual who is overcome with power and manipulated by an outside force with bad medicine being the particular culprit here instead of Exorcist's devil.

When we first meet actor/producer James Mason's cheery bridge party hosting schoolteacher at the start of the film, we're quick to be let in on one of several secrets as it's revealed that – in order to keep up the front of a successful breadwinner – Mason's Ed Avery has been moonlighting a few days every week as a taxi dispatcher. It's a position where we notice that, in another secretive wink at the audience, Ray reveals to us that much like Ed's work at school, he's essentially one of the only men in employ.

Hiding severe bodily pains that find him doubled over from his easily contented suburban wife, for Ed, the game is up when he passes out in their home shortly after informing his wife that like another couple she criticizes, they're all uniformly dull. Thereafter, he winds up in the hospital for a series of punctures, prods, pokes, pulls and pills until a diagnosis is reached.

When given the overwhelming news that he's suffering from a fatal arterial condition, Ed eagerly commits to experimental trials of high doses of decade's hot new miracle hormone drug Cortisone and is soon able to check out of the hospital completely pain-free, with an extension on what would've been roughly a year longer of a life.

Yet feeling like he's “ten feet tall,” and so manic that he can't wait to spend like there's no tomorrow despite the fact that he's assured there will be several tomorrows in his future, soon Ed can't help but abuse his prescription, taking much more than the one pill every six hour dosage he'd been advised.

Eventually he transforms into an out of control, uninhibited and overly aggressive Alpha Ed who – in the film's most famously cited sequence – hovers over his son in shadow as though he were in fact twice his size, after the temptation to “feel better” turns into feeling invincible.

And quickly this state of mind gives him the ultimate sense of father knows best in the form of a God complex as he puts his son on an educational program out of the dark ages, and his wife must decide how to proceed when dealing with the question that prolonged life at any cost could come at the cost of others.

While the family was aware that depression and psychosis were potential side effects, when they begin to manifest severely (in a slightly melodramatic, over-the-loopy-top manner), director Nicholas Ray is able to truly do his subversive worst by using the framework of speaking right through Mason in what today would be a TV movie of the week.

And allegorically through cinematography, production design and subtle performance nuances, Ray's Bigger Than Life boldly invites you to decipher the film's secrets through the use of the straight drama rather than campy satire. Likewise, you're left to analyze what buttons the film is pushing, why, and what it says about the era, regardless of the fact that certain aspects like Mason's scenery stomping “God was wrong!” declaration and musical score that acts like an exclamation point have made it somewhat campier over the years.

Featuring in-depth analytical bonus features such as critical commentary, the trademark essay booklet, a mini-documentary on Ray and a terrific featurette with Motherless Brooklyn author Jonathan Lethem, Criterion's beautifully twisted recapture of the Cinescope film in a grain free print makes an exceptional teaching tool whether you're curing a congenital film buff disease or not.

And throughout, Bigger Than Life and director Nicholas Ray use cinema as a potent prescription to take the filter off of the Baby Boomer era as your pupils dilate, eyes open wider and mind sharpens to take it all in as if you were God.

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FTC Disclosure:
Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.