Sometimes you watch an older movie and you wonder where it's been your whole life. This was the experience I had with 'Bigger Than Life.'
'Bigger Than Life' is a story of suburban decay. While it will be seen mostly as a kind of candy colored melodrama, along the lines of something Douglas Sirk would have cooked up, make no mistake, this thing spirals into darkness in a pretty profound way. By the time the credits hit, the thing has delved, more or less, into full-on psychological horror movie territory. And that's what makes it all the more endearing. How, exactly, did this thing get released in 1956?
The story follows: James Mason (who also co-wrote the screenplay and produced the film) plays a hardworking school teacher in suburban America. He's so strapped for cash that he's taken an afternoon gig as a taxi dispatcher, a job that he keeps from his wife (Barbara Rush) and young son. Soon the stress gets to him and he suffers from some vague breakdown (I'm fairly certain it's a heart attack). Facing a grave diagnosis, he's prescribed the hormone cortisone.
Emboldened by his newfound lease on life (and his prescription), Mason seizes the day. He takes his family on an expensive shopping trip, seems vigorous and sharp – another character acknowledges that he actually looks physically larger (hence the title). But soon this mood curdles. His outlook on life becomes darker, more psychotic. He looks menacingly at his benign gay coworker played by Walter Matthau. By the movie's third act, things have gotten almost claustrophobically dark, and the buzz is only somewhat dampened by a fizzy, feel-good ending (this was a major Hollywood movie, released by 20th Century Fox, some concessions were surely due).
One of the more miraculous things about 'Bigger Than Life' is how slowly and subtly the shift away from the daytime melodrama to the darkly rendered psychological horror is. You really have no idea where the movie will be in the next fifteen minutes, which is true throughout the picture. The movie's color palette turns bold and expressionistic as Mason's psychology fractures. Visual clues deepen the subtext, everything from Mason constantly drinking milk to the maps of faraway places that dot the home. It's kind of a marvel, and at times you'll want to stop the movie and start it over again midway through, just to see how Nicholas Ray, the talented director behind 'Rebel Without a Cause,' pulled it off with such ease.
Of course, there is a condemnation of suburban America there, of the warring fears (conformity, communism, consumerism) and the hidden cracks just beneath the surface. And all of this really is fascinating, and proof positive that the movie is a rich and rewarding experience that extends well beyond the typical Hollywood melodrama. This is a deep, serious piece of art that at the time was almost uniformly ignored by critics and audiences alike.
Now, lovingly restored, the movie feels like a timeless classic, one that can just as easily be applied to today. And James Mason, an actor of seemingly boundless oddness, applies a fine dollop of pansexual European sophistication to the very American part. It's just another thing that separates him from his suburban surroundings and makes it that much bigger than life.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This 50GB disc is Region "A" locked. As part of the Criterion collection, it is spine #507 and is packaged in their chunky, thicker box.
The MPEG-4 AVC 1080p transfer (maintaining the 2.55:1 aspect ratio) is nothing short of a marvel. Really, this is a stunner.
To quote from the accompanying booklet: "For this new high-definition digital transfer, the original 35 mm 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.
Which is to say: this is a hell of a transfer. Don't be spooked by all that technical mumbo jumbo. Those fearing digital noise reduction or any of the problems that come with that, shouldn't. This is a robust, natural looking transfer through and through, one that wonderfully captures the movie's original, CinemaScope presentation. Skin tones look realistic, blacks are deep, detail is abundant, depth is nearly three-dimensional and Ray's expressionistic use of color really comes through, especially during the movie's nightmarish third act. There's a fine, film-like layer of grain.
There are no buggy issues either, in terms of the original image (like they said, no splices, dirt, scratches or anything else) or in the digital clean-up and presentation (no artifacts, micro-blocking, etc).
This is just a gorgeous transfer, tenderly restored and marvelously presented.
The disc's lone audio option, an English LPCM 1.0 track, doesn't exactly deliver the same kind of heft as some new blockbuster, but it is a subtle and immersive track in its own right.
With a monaural track, the thing you're looking for, first and foremost, is clarity. And everything here is crystal clear. Again, according to the booklet: "The monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from the original 35 mm magnetic audio track. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube's integrated audio workstation."
Really, this sounds great. Dialogue, sound effects (like an out of control carnival emitted from a television set), and music all come through with robust clarity. Are you going to think that James Mason and Walter Matthau are wrestling around your living room? Probably not. But that doesn't make this clean, crisp, refreshingly warm audio mix any less impressive.
English subtitles are also available.
All the extras produced here are also available on the DVD version of 'Bigger Than Life' (released at the same time). The only additional feature is the 'Timeline' option, which has become a mainstay for Criterion's high definition releases.
'Bigger Than Life' is a wonderful, haunting, multi-layered little movie, rich and rewarding. James Mason, a wily, charismatic character actor trapped in the body of a leading man, is amazing in the lead role, subtly taking the movie from the safe territory of suburban melodrama to the dangerous waters of the psychological horror film. With superb audio and video and a host of engaging extras, this is must-own if there ever was one. Make your home video collection bigger (in more than one way) with the addition of this superb, lovingly restored film.