Nicholas Ray is considered one of the great directors for a number of great noir and western films, but a number of his works have remained unreleased on home video. His best known film is easily Rebel without a Cause, but movies like On Dangerous Ground, They Live by Night, In a Lonely Place and Johnny Guitar have attracted cineaste and cultists (Guitar is fascinating in that it stars Joan Crawford in a very purple western). For many, the only word on Bigger Than Life was that it was raved about it in his A Personal Journey Though American Movies with Martin Scorsese. But – at the time in the mid-90’s – a great number of the films he talked about were unavailable, including Bigger than Life. But this James Mason film about Cortisone addiction is well worth discovering with Criterion’s lush Blu-ray release. My review of Bigger than Life after the jump.
Producer James Mason plays Ed Avery, a teacher who also works in the evening as a cab driver. He’s married to Lou (Barbara Rush) and they have a son Richie (Christopher Olsen). They live in the suburbs, but Ed won’t tell his wife he’s working evenings to help support the family, and their suburban life is notable for how the scrape by the American dream. But Ed has some health troubles, and it sends him to the hospital, where they give him some cortisone to relieve his problem. The medicine has side effects, including mood swings and eventually a powerful addiction that has Ed acting out in more and more inappropriate ways, including faking a prescription. From there Mason’s Avery starts slowly following into addiction and dementia.
There is a subtext in a lot of – what amounts to – “Baby Boomer” cinema about the dark undercurrents of the 1950’s, and the children of World War II facing that their parents were not as clean cut, that the suburbs were not the paradise essayed by television. You can see this in films like Blue Velvet, American Beauty and Pleasantville, among many, many others. And yet films in the 50’s were addressing these very same issues. In the Douglas Sirk melodramas, and in the films of Nicholas Ray, you could find that the 1950’s were just as critical of the facades as anyone ever was later, if not more on point for addressing them at the time. And Bigger than Life paints a bulls-eye on placid living, and suggests that undercurrent, but does so without necessarily blaming society for its ills. And it gets there with one hell of a performance.
Frankly, James Mason is one of the greatest actors in the history of cinema. There, I said it. Though his list of highlights is more modest than Ray’s, he does have North by Northwest, The Reckless Moment, Lolita and Odd Man Out (and this) to his credit, but was often used for a perfect example of British ambivalence. His hypnotic, mellifluous voice is a choice reason why movies benefited from sound. Here he’s working with Ray, and as Mason produced (and if the IMDb is to be believed, worked on the script), you’ve got one of his most dynamic and revelatory on-screen performances. You can see why Mason might love the material, because he gets to go everywhere with this role, and though there’s a sense of the eventual course of the movie (Mason must hit a bottom, as all addicts must), with Mason this becomes more palatable than a number of films where this course is inevitable. It’s partly because there’s such a great inner turmoil in the character that you can sense at time he can see around the edges, can see how out of it he’s become. But then he gains (or loses) focus, and he’s back into it. But also, because he’s British, it’s like something that Quentin Tarantino said, that it’s more fun to watch people in suits get dirty, and there’s something about a Brit being sullied that may appeal to an American sensibility.
Then, there’s Ray basically tearing down suburbia in a more direct way than he did with Rebel without a Cause. And all those later films that attempted to “rip the lid off” this world never did it as well or as brutally as Nicholas Ray. He’s one of the great filmmakers, with a painterly eye, and a strong sense of composition.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray is revelatory, especially because the only way to see the film previously was the rare retro-showing, or off of television. The film is presented in widescreen (2.55:1) and in 1.0 mono. This was a big cinemascope feature from the fifties, and the transfer is stunning. Though there’s no real comparison to previous releases stateside, this gets the right tone and palette for the Fox films of the era, but with a crisp look. Basically, it looks right without feeling too modern. Extras include a commentary by Geoff Andrew, author of “The Films of Nicholas Ray.” It’s a solid thoughtful commentary on the film, and covers some of the architecture of shots, and color use. There’s a 1977 profile of Ray (29 min.) from television that covers much of his career, but focuses mostly on Rebel without a Cause. More on point is an interview with Jonathan Lethem (27 min.) who loves the film and digs in to what he sees as some of the greatest elements of the film, and notes that he thinks Walter Mathau’s supporting character is likely a homosexual. Susan Ray – Nicholas Ray’s widow – also goes in depth (22 min.) on the man and this film. The film’s theatrical trailer is also included.