Directed by: Nicholas Ray
Countries & Regions: United States
Studio: British Film Institute
Length: 91 mins
Region: Region 2
Released: 30 July 2007
Cat No: BFIVD672
Screen ratio 1:2.35
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Bigger Than Life
This combination of searing melodrama and subversive social critique is one of the key American films of the 1950s, a high point in the... Read More
Back in the 1950s, when French film critics championed a few Hollywood filmmakers for their ability to imprint studio films with highly personal, authorial voices (such as Hitchcock, Hawks, and Fuller), no one was more lauded than Nicholas Ray: ‘The cinema is Nicholas Ray,’ Jean-Luc Godard famously wrote in 1957. (Later, in Made in USA, Godard dedicated his film to “Nick and Samuel, who taught me respect for image and sound.”) Taken as a whole, Ray’s cinema (including In a Lonely Place, Bitter Victory, and Rebel Without a Cause) quickly became known for its obsessive, anguished protagonists, widescreen visual beauty (not for nothing did Ray study architecture under Frank Lloyd Wright), and perhaps most importantly, its intense alienation from the cheery conformity of postwar American culture.
Bigger Than Life (1956) – a classic Hollywood melodrama long absent on video – has finally received its DVD debut, and it might just be Ray’s masterpiece. A genteel schoolteacher named Ed Avery (deliciously played by James Mason) suddenly finds his inner demons clawing out from his psyche after he undergoes ‘wonder drug’ treatments for a fatal disease; though it spares his life, the drug releases Avery’s repressed anger and megalomania on those around him. The film is ingeniously conceived: what at first seems like a critique of the medical establishment gradually expands in scope to encompass every aspect of Avery’s life as schoolteacher, husband, and parent, thus taking on major pillars of the American Dream and revealing their dark undercurrents of domination and control.
Ray uses color, setting, and gesture in spectacular ways, emphasizing fiery reds and oranges to suggest Avery’s mounting delirium, filming his climactic scene on a staircase with as much dramatic tension as a Hitchcock thriller, and – in a process Ray described as ‘hunting for the truth of the scene’ – generating intense emotions through the expressions and psychology of his actors.
Ray’s maverick energy (including his own alcohol and chemical abuses) eventually resulted in a fight with cancer he couldn’t win, but he left audiences with a series of deeply felt films, often as self-critical and clear-sighted as virtually any in cinema.