507 Bigger Than Life

Discuss DVDs and Blu-rays released by Criterion and the films on them. If it's got a spine number, it's in here. Threads may contain spoilers.
Post Reply
Message
Author
User avatar
Matt
Joined: Tue Nov 02, 2004 12:58 pm

507 Bigger Than Life

#1 Post by Matt » Tue Dec 15, 2009 4:12 pm

Bigger Than Life

[img]http://criterion_production.s3.amazonaws.com/release_images/2596/507_BD_box_348x490_w128.jpg[/img]

Though ignored at the time of its release, Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life is now recognized as one of the great American films of the 1950s. When a friendly, successful suburban teacher and father (James Mason, in one of his most indelible roles) 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. This Eisenhower-era throat-grabber, shot in expressive CinemaScope, is an excoriating take on the nuclear family; that it came in the day of Father Knows Best makes it all the more shocking—and wildly entertaining.

Disc Features

- New, restored high-definition digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
- Audio commentary featuring critic Geoff Andrew (The Films of Nicholas Ray)
- Profile of Nicholas Ray (1977), a half-hour television interview with the director
- New video appreciation of Bigger Than Life with author Jonathan Lethem (Chronic City)
- New video interview with Susan Ray, the director’s widow and editor of the book I Was Interrupted: Nicholas Ray on Making Movies
- Theatrical trailer
- PLUS: An essay by film writer B. Kite

Available on DVD and Blu-ray

DVD
Criterionforum.org user rating averages


Blu-ray
Criterionforum.org user rating averages


ship_destroyer
Joined: Mon Aug 24, 2009 1:22 am

Re: 507 Bigger Than Life

#2 Post by ship_destroyer » Tue Dec 15, 2009 4:39 pm

awesome. shame it's not Johnny Guitar, but maybe that'll come soon too... wishful thinking

User avatar
HerrSchreck
Joined: Sun Sep 04, 2005 11:46 am

Re: 507 Bigger Than Life

#3 Post by HerrSchreck » Tue Dec 15, 2009 4:40 pm

It has its moments, but not one of my favorite Ray's. I watched it over the summer, and it felt surprisingly dated.

Mason, nontheless, as always, is great to watch.

User avatar
Murdoch
Joined: Sun Apr 20, 2008 11:59 pm
Location: Upstate NY

Re: 507 Bigger Than Life

#4 Post by Murdoch » Tue Dec 15, 2009 4:52 pm

Mason's performance is superb, but as Ray acknowledged the film would have been less dated had the drug Mason uses not been given a specific name.

But there are some great moments in the film, like the lighting during the scene where Ed tutors his son and the fight between Ed and Wally.

User avatar
HerrSchreck
Joined: Sun Sep 04, 2005 11:46 am

Re: 507 Bigger Than Life

#5 Post by HerrSchreck » Tue Dec 15, 2009 5:03 pm

Murdoch wrote:Mason's performance is superb, but as Ray acknowledged the film would have been less dated had the drug Mason uses not been given a specific name.
Bingo-- it would have been better off if he were just subject to some refugee croaker with a strong writing arm keeping him hooked on "vitamin" injections or some sort of vague cocktail of unnamed addicting/psychotropic drugs... the usual Hitler-Morrell scenario of a quack prescribing dangerous drugs with euphoric qualities of giving relief (like Morell's cocaine q-tips in the nose, and morphine injections... a lively fuhrer straightens up after a bout of cramping flatulence: "Jesus, doc... that stuff really works!"), with all but the patient hip to the score.

The cortisone (that's what it was, yea?) angle makes it all seem somewhat naive and lectury, and unintentionally of the Marihuana Weed With Roots In Hell (although I love that Esper film) species.

User avatar
Sloper
Joined: Tue May 29, 2007 10:06 pm

Re: 507 Bigger Than Life

#6 Post by Sloper » Tue Dec 15, 2009 6:32 pm

It absolutely does feel naive and lecturey - and yes the naming of the drug contributes to that (at least they didn't do a James Cameron and call it Megalomanisone or something) - but isn't that part of how the film legitimates all the subversive things going on in it? This is a truly scary portrait of a man going off the rails, not only because of the drug he gets addicted to but also because of deep-rooted neuroses and dissatisfactions which are visible from the start: his madness doesn't come out of nowhere, and the fact that his rants always remain so cogent and articulate reinforces the sense that this is the real man emerging, catalysed by his addiction.

I normally think the 'subversive' elements of these '50s melodramas are overstated a bit, but there's something genuinely disturbing in this film's commentary on the All American Dad, playing football with his son (such a brilliant scene), giving him extra tuition after school - and that bit where he's spouting off about how children are all 'morons' at the school open day, and some of the audience start noddding their heads in agreement, is really cutting. If it's also rather heavy-handed, that's what makes it a commercially viable Hollywood product; the whole 'based on an actual case-history' (an article called 'Ten Feet Tall', I think) thing, and the medical mumbo-jumbo, is just a sugar-coating.
SpoilerShow
And after the horrific climax, the ending rings pretty hollow - and it's far from uncomplicatedly happy, since it isn't clear how this apparently 'happy again' family are going to resolve their apparently insoluble problem.
Bigger Than Life is a good example of that tendency Scorsese talks about, and which I think is one of the reasons he loves films like this, where a director 'smuggles' troubling ideas in under a more comfortable facade. I know this is a fairly obvious thing to say, but my point is that the creaky topicality is an essential part of what makes this such an interesting (though I agree, not wholly successful) film.

User avatar
HerrSchreck
Joined: Sun Sep 04, 2005 11:46 am

Re: 507 Bigger Than Life

#7 Post by HerrSchreck » Tue Dec 15, 2009 6:57 pm

I don't know about all that-- the subversiveness, I mean. What with Man With The Golden Arm and Monkey on My Back bookending it by a year in both directions, and The Lost Weekend ten years prior dealing w the effects of alcoholism, I'm not so sure the subject matter was all that much of a smuggling job.

As far as it is not a story of the hypocricy of the "perfect" happy American middle class home led by a parent popping prescription pills entirely for reasons of addiction and crutch, it doesn't seem to pierce very deeply into the heart of Eisenhowerian Americana (something Sirk did so well, and Ray did so well in Rebel)... Mason's disposition seems to border on camp specifically for this reason alone-- the effects of the drug are so overstated, his "high" registers a bit on the wacky side.. certainly his ten-feet-tall Zeus complex didn't seem to register in a way which really resembles anything in the known world: a portrait rendered by scaremongers and therefore not likely to hit home for anyone who's lived in a household affected by a drugtaking/drinking parent. It's Mason's performance and Ray's skill as a director which keep it completely watchable today and keep the very good moments intact.

User avatar
domino harvey
Dot Com Dom
Joined: Wed Jan 11, 2006 2:42 pm

Re: 507 Bigger Than Life

#8 Post by domino harvey » Tue Dec 15, 2009 9:00 pm

So... isn't this a surprise? After all the people asking if this was coming from Criterion just because Fox's theatrical revival arm is called Criterion, it actually is coming out on Criterion. This is my second favorite Ray behind Rebel Without a Cause. Saw it again recently this summer and it's a good one to see with a live audience that has no idea what's coming in those last twenty minutes

James
Joined: Wed Jun 04, 2008 4:11 pm

Re: 507 Bigger Than Life

#9 Post by James » Tue Dec 15, 2009 9:13 pm

domino harvey wrote:So... isn't this a surprise? After all the people asking if this was coming from Criterion just because Fox's theatrical revival arm is called Criterion, it actually is coming out on Criterion. This is my second favorite Ray behind Rebel Without a Cause. Saw it again recently this summer and it's a good one to see with a live audience that has no idea what's coming in those last twenty minutes
Well, it was in the non-speculation thread, so no, I don't think it was necessarily a surprise. Then again, I only knew of it as a potential release because one poster told me about it the day before.

Is this worthy of buying without having seen it or does it only have a few big-time fans?

User avatar
Jeff
Joined: Tue Nov 02, 2004 9:49 pm
Location: Denver, CO

Re: 507 Bigger Than Life

#10 Post by Jeff » Tue Dec 15, 2009 9:18 pm

domino harvey wrote:So... isn't this a surprise?
The Mulvaney confirmed it to me via email back in March, and it has been in the forthcoming list since then. I've been suggesting it to them a few times a year since 2004. While I understand the comments about it being dated, it's one of my favorites -- probably just behind In a Lonely Place and Johnny Guitar in the Ray cannon for me. I'm incredibly pleased and surprised to see it in Blu. The cinematography is one of the big selling points, and it's heavily featured in A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese....

cana7cl
Joined: Sun May 27, 2007 4:44 pm
Contact:

Re: 507 Bigger Than Life

#11 Post by cana7cl » Tue Dec 15, 2009 9:42 pm

Monaural only?
What happened to the 4-track audio available in the magnetic prints?

User avatar
Murdoch
Joined: Sun Apr 20, 2008 11:59 pm
Location: Upstate NY

Re: 507 Bigger Than Life

#12 Post by Murdoch » Tue Dec 15, 2009 10:21 pm

james wrote:Is this worthy of buying without having seen it or does it only have a few big-time fans?
I am a fan of the film - despite how dated it can feel and the relative preachy nature - but I'm guessing Schreck's reaction is close to the norm. I'd suggest a blind-buy if you're a Ray or Mason enthusiast, otherwise see it before you buy it.

User avatar
knives
Joined: Sat Sep 06, 2008 6:49 pm

Re: 507 Bigger Than Life

#13 Post by knives » Tue Dec 15, 2009 11:13 pm

Shreck, even with your adverse reaction, would you say it at least has camp value? I'm interested in seeing this, but I don't want to blindbuy this if my only possible adverse reaction is a 'so bad it's bad' sort of thing.

User avatar
Gregory
Joined: Tue Nov 02, 2004 4:07 pm

Re: 507 Bigger Than Life

#14 Post by Gregory » Tue Dec 15, 2009 11:41 pm

To me, this film is absolute top-tier Ray and among the best Hollywood films of its era. It seems a mistake to focus on whatever "topicality" sits on its surface. It's not a film about the problem of addiction any more than Rebel Without a Cause is a social problem film about juvenile delinquency. That was merely the device Ray used to pull back the veil. I think it would have been unthinkable to take away this part of the premise, to have a father figure any more an overtly screwed up and conflicted personality than Mason's character plainly is anyway -- i.e. to have Bogart's Dix Steele from In a Lonely Place at the head of a nuclear family.

As it is, the film is richer for the drug premise. It's squarely within the tradition of Jekyll and Hyde, in which the drug does not create but reveals monstrous traits. The film daringly situates these horror conventions within a melodrama, a shining example of a the kind of blending and layering of genres that characterizes a lot of the most interesting films of the second half of the 1950s. For what it's worth I find it a lot less dated than Rebel Without a Cause, though I think in some ways both films were ahead of their time. Neither is preachy unless one is looking to receive that kind of message.

Even though I'm focusing so much on thematic and generic qualities, I hardly need to add that the mise-en-scène here is marvelous.
Murdoch wrote:
james wrote:Is this worthy of buying without having seen it or does it only have a few big-time fans?
I am a fan of the film - despite how dated it can feel and the relative preachy nature - but I'm guessing Schreck's reaction is close to the norm...
I don't know about any consensus of prominent members of this forum (most likely there isn't one), but I certainly think Schreck's valuation of it is a lot different from what the critical consensus the film historically has been. It's generally been considered among Ray's greatest achievements. However, I don't think anyone should buy DVDs based on what the film canon (such that one exists).

User avatar
zedz
Joined: Sun Nov 07, 2004 7:24 pm

Re: 507 Bigger Than Life

#15 Post by zedz » Wed Dec 16, 2009 12:03 am

I'm with Sloper on this, but I also see the datedness and 'overreaching' (for want of a better term) that Schreck identifies. The cortisone kerfuffle is just camouflage: what's brilliant about this film is the way Mason's psychosis manifests itself as 50s American family values turned up to 10. As a critique of those values it's hardly subtle, but it's amazingly powerful, particularly in that final stretch, as dark as anything from Hollywood in the 50s and, as Domino notes, a complete thrill to view with an unprepared audience (are Ray and Mason really going to go all the way with this? - then you get the God line and whoops! they've gone about a mile beyond).

Still only one of my middling Rays, though. Bring on The Lusty Men!

User avatar
Jeff
Joined: Tue Nov 02, 2004 9:49 pm
Location: Denver, CO

Re: 507 Bigger Than Life

#16 Post by Jeff » Wed Dec 16, 2009 12:08 am

Knives and James, this essay from Senses of Cinema gives a pretty thorough overview.

User avatar
HerrSchreck
Joined: Sun Sep 04, 2005 11:46 am

Re: 507 Bigger Than Life

#17 Post by HerrSchreck » Wed Dec 16, 2009 12:29 am

I'm glad to hear some credible championing voices as I'm loathe to be the spokesperson for this film's qualities, much less have somebody's judgement on it be decided based on a pronouncement of mine on the day of its release-announcement .

As I said I do think that it's Ray's direction and Masons monolithic performance that gird the film and keep it on this side of camp (I don't think it has any camp value, frankly, to its credit)... and deliver moments that I feel are very good and keep it from mediocrity and silliness.

The problem I have with the film is the outsized, Olympian state that Mason slips into, and the Serious Medical Discussions about "the terrible side effects of this new drug," etc etc... the latter is so false as a premise viz cortisone, and Mason's altered state is so Hyde-ish indeed, that whatever social commentary could have been rendered by his Unchained ALter Ego become rather the pronoucnements of the monster, which seem to have no connection to reality. If you get hit accidentally over the head with a waffle iron and you suddenly start calling your child a motherfucking communist or something, well, that's monster movie territory indeed. If you take a couple of percocets and call your wife a coffin-nail or bad lay in front of company or something... that's far more genuinely shocking. The former is a complete conversion that renders the venom from his mouth worthless as social commentary, since he's no longer the same person. It's the horror-movie aspect, and its outsized qualities-- complete with sci-fi drug/effects (which Ray apparently lamented in the script) which neutralized the impact of what is "revealed" as lurking within the otherwise responsible Mason... instead of a peeling away, it seems to be a total personality replacement.

My language is probably exaggerating this effect a bit-- it's not, NOT a bad film. It's a good, and occasionally very good film. I just don't see the masterpiece that others do (i e along the lines of In A Lonely Place... my god I could write for weeks about that film-- brainbending, wrenching masterwork of the black pit of the lonely heart) because the inconsistencies and incongruities, when they appear, throw paint on Ray's canvass here which isn't easily wiped away for me.

User avatar
jsteffe
Joined: Sat Mar 31, 2007 9:00 am
Location: Atlanta, GA

Re: 507 Bigger Than Life

#18 Post by jsteffe » Wed Dec 16, 2009 12:48 am

Gregory wrote:As it is, the film is richer for the drug premise. It's squarely within the tradition of Jekyll and Hyde, in which the drug does not create but reveals monstrous traits. The film daringly situates these horror conventions within a melodrama, a shining example of a the kind of blending and layering of genres that characterizes a lot of the most interesting films of the second half of the 1950s. For what it's worth I find it a lot less dated than Rebel Without a Cause, though I think in some ways both films were ahead of their time. Neither is preachy unless one is looking to receive that kind of message.

I like Gregory's characterization. And in case you're wondering about how much a horror film it could really be, wait 'til you get to the climax! It's over the top, but Mason makes it work. Maybe I still prefer Rebel Without a Causeand Johnny Guitar, but this film has so many things going for it that yes, it's worth a blind buy if you like Ray or Fifties cinema in general.

Can't wait to see this on Blu-ray!

But I also wonder about the 4-track magnetic stereo soundtrack. I thought I saw this film listed somehwere among the early 'scope films that had magnetic stereo tracks, but I might be mistaken. Do those audio elements still survive, or are we left with just the optical mono?

User avatar
david hare
Joined: Tue Nov 02, 2004 8:01 pm
Location: WellyYeller

Re: 507 Bigger Than Life

#19 Post by david hare » Wed Dec 16, 2009 12:53 am

I agree with zedz - at least Lusty Men is getting a French release next year.

Meanwhile, bring on Wind Across the Everglades

User avatar
knives
Joined: Sat Sep 06, 2008 6:49 pm

Re: 507 Bigger Than Life

#20 Post by knives » Wed Dec 16, 2009 1:11 am

HerrSchreck wrote: It's the horror-movie aspect, and its outsized qualities-- complete with sci-fi drug/effects (which Ray apparently lamented in the script) which neutralized the impact of what is "revealed" as lurking within the otherwise responsible Mason... instead of a peeling away, it seems to be a total personality replacement. My language is probably exaggerating this effect a bit-- it's not, NOT a bad film.
So 1950s The Stepfather? That plus Matthau in support make this sound at least like a bucket of fun.

User avatar
HerrSchreck
Joined: Sun Sep 04, 2005 11:46 am

Re: 507 Bigger Than Life

#21 Post by HerrSchreck » Wed Dec 16, 2009 3:31 am

knives wrote:So 1950s The Stepfather? That plus Matthau in support make this sound at least like a bucket of fun.
Go for it and make up your own mind. You might even come back here and call me crazy--my tastes are far from universal.

User avatar
knives
Joined: Sat Sep 06, 2008 6:49 pm

Re: 507 Bigger Than Life

#22 Post by knives » Wed Dec 16, 2009 3:42 am

I was going to see this no matter what, just wasn't sure if it was worth the risk of a blind buy. With my insane preconceptions formed by this thread I'll do a tentative yes.

jojo
Joined: Thu Jun 05, 2008 1:47 pm

Re: 507 Bigger Than Life

#23 Post by jojo » Wed Dec 16, 2009 1:11 pm

This is great. I've been waiting for this. I echo the thoughts of a previous poster about Johnny Guitar CC release. A CC version of Party Girl would be welcome too.

User avatar
zedz
Joined: Sun Nov 07, 2004 7:24 pm

Re: 507 Bigger Than Life

#24 Post by zedz » Wed Dec 16, 2009 3:12 pm

HerrSchreck wrote:As I said I do think that it's Ray's direction and Masons monolithic performance that gird the film and keep it on this side of camp (I don't think it has any camp value, frankly, to its credit).
This is a good observation. It's a film that sounds camp as anything when you describe it, but it plays very differently on screen.

Another credibility gap I have with the film is the conception of Barbara Rush's ultra-doormat wife, who submits to patriarchy well beyond the 'obvious fruitloop' point. This serves the social critique just fine, but I don't feel the filmmakers manage to make it work dramatically. Still, the tradeoff for this is the intensity and insanity of the denouement.

User avatar
Finch
Joined: Mon Jul 07, 2008 5:09 pm
Location: Edinburgh, UK

Re: 507 Bigger Than Life

#25 Post by Finch » Wed Dec 16, 2009 3:48 pm

I've only seen a handful of Nicholas Ray's films (found Rebel worthwhile, love Johnny Guitar and especially In A Lonely Place) and wasn't sure if this would be worth a blind-buy. This discussion demonstrates what I love about this forum and has encouraged me and my other half to at least rent the BFI disc in January when we get a lot more time to watch a few films.

Post Reply