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Category:    Home > Reviews > Drama > Family > Crisis > Health > Narcotics > Melodrama > Bigger Than Life (1956/Criterion Collection Blu-ray)

Bigger Than Life (1956/Criterion Collection Blu-ray)


Picture: B     Sound: C+     Extras: B-     Film: B-



Nicholas Ray was a great director and could produce classics in any film frame or format.  This included his transition to making widescreen films, starting with CinemaScope classics like Rebel Without A Cause (1955) and culminating in epic event films like the amusing Biblical epic King Of Kings (1961) and 55 Days At Peking (1963), but he was also capable of making intimate films in the wide frame and Criterion has released fan favorite Bigger Than Life with the great James Mason as a happy family man and teacher who finds out he may not have long to live.


Mason, the greatest risk-taker of his generation, co-produced the film and also sports a great screenplay mainly written by Cyril Hume (the original 1932 Tarzan – The Ape Man, Forbidden Planet) and Richard Maibaum (Ransom!, 13 films in the James Bond franchise) that holds up very well, is exceptionally intelligent and is melodrama without its usual setbacks and phoniness.  A great supporting cats including Barbara Rush (Magnificent Obsession, It Came From Outer Space) as his wife, Walter Matthau and Christopher Olsen (yes, the brother of original Brady Bunch daughter Susan Olsen) all mesh well in what feels like one of the most honest films about 1950s families and family life.


But it is star Mason who shines in a not-so-glamorous role, yet the drug angle was bold for its time and holds up.  In addition, the locations and look of the film are an interesting (and intentional mix) of modernism and a look of the past that lingers and mixes with it.  Not simply a gilded cage look, the misé-en-scene suggests a more complicated sense of freedom and trap at the same time, with the scope framing not necessarily offering more cinematic space.  On Blu-ray from Criterion, you get to really appreciate how fine a film this is, even where it has undeniably dated in parts.



The 1080p 2.55 X 1 digital High Definition image is one of the first of the early wider CinemaScope films to see a Blu-ray release and was done at 4K resolution.  The frame was later reduced to 2.35 X 1 where it has stayed in various formats to this day as the official ratio for scope.  It is also the first of the older Fox films to make it to the format to date.  Though some shots can look bad, the two-lens system has its distortions and optical transitions have detail degrades, the color is exceptionally reproduced, very solid and only Jailhouse Rock (a black and white film, now on Blu-ray and reviewed on the similar, obsolete HD-DVD format elsewhere on this site) has better definition while the restoration here is equal to Forbidden Planet (due on Blu-ray, also covered on the obsolete HD-DVD format elsewhere on this site) as the only other color scope HD release we have to compare.  Director of Photography Joseph MacDonald, A.S.C., was also a groundbreaker in the scope format all the way to his final work on The Sand Pebbles (1966, see Blu-ray on this site) and Mackenna’s Gold (1969) going back to How To Marry A Millionaire in 1953.  His choices throughout only enhance the story.


The DTS-HD MA (Master Audio) lossless 2.0 Mono comes from an original monophonic soundmaster, but the film had been issued in 4-track magnetic stereo in its better 35mm release prints, but it seems those tracks have been sadly lost for good.  With that said, the sound is fine for what we get and has been cleaned up, but shows its age in some slight compression.  David Raskin (The Big Combo, Al Capone (1959)) delivers one of his best-ever music scores.


Extras include a booklet with tech information, illustrations and B. Kite essay, new video interview with Susan Ray (widow of the director and editor of I Was Interrupted: Nicholas Ray on Making Movies), new video appreciation of the film with author Jonathan Lethem, theatrical trailer, feature-length audio commentary track by critic/writer Geoff Andrew (The Films Of Nicholas Ray) and 1977 half-hour TV special Profile Of Nicholas Ray.



-   Nicholas Sheffo


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