Bigger Than Life (1956)

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Released 1-Nov-2007

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Drama Menu Audio
Rating Rated M
Year Of Production 1956
Running Time 91:14 (Case: 95)
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (63:55) Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 1,2,3,4,5,6 Directed By Nicholas Ray

Starring James Mason
Barbara Rush
Walter Matthau
Robert F. Simon
Christopher Olsen
Roland Winters
Rusty Lane
Rachel Stephens
Kipp Hamilton
Case Amaray-Transparent
RPI $14.95 Music David Raksin

Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame Unknown English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono (192Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 2.35:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 2.35:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures Yes
Subtitles None Smoking No
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits Yes, Setting scene - no principal actors, only extras.

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

    "... suddenly their whole world blasted apart by a habit he couldn't stop!"

    "Bigger Than Life" is one of the great films of the 50s. When it was released in 1956 it was a box office disaster.

    The year was 1956 and studios, particularly CinemaScope committed Twentieth Century Fox, were filling the wider screens with history and spectacle. Bigger Than Life was doomed to financial failure. It had no battles, wide vistas or open chases. Instead audiences were confronted by a realistic domestic drama that dealt with subject matter never previously tackled by the movies.Two years earlier its producer/star, James Mason, and director, Nicholas Ray  scored with the biggest hits of their careers, Mason with Judy Garland's  A Star Is Born and Ray with James Dean's Rebel Without a Cause. Over the years, however, many have come to consider that their best work is in this financial "flop", and that  Bigger Than Life is  Nicholas Ray's masterpiece.

    Ed Avery (James Mason) is in his 40s, a respected school teacher in one of those "typical" middle-class American towns. We first see Ed in his "normal" professional life, interacting with his fellow teachers, gym instructor Wally Gibbs (Walter Matthau), Pat (Kipp Hamilton ), the attractive young teacher whose car  "needs a push", and principal Bob LaPorte (Rusty Lane). We discover that Ed, unknown to his wife, is working a second job to pay the bills.We then follow him home to his twin-bed, picture-perfect domesticity with Lou (Barbara Rush) , neat and pretty, perfectly coiffed - and apronnned ! Son Richie ( Christopher Olsen) is watching a TV western and Dad gives words of wisdom.We seem to be in TV sitcom territory - Father Knows Best or Leave It To Beaver . True, there are hints of tensions and stress, but all seems pretty much under control - a key word - as Ed and Lou live out the American dream. Then something happens that removes that control. The facade is ripped away and the naked psychological and emotional nightmare of their lives is exposed.

    Later that evening The Averys have friends, including Wally and Bob, "over for bridge".Ed is in the kitchen with Pat getting drinks when he collapses. He is rushed to the hospital where he is diagnosed with a rare inflammation of the arteries. The doctor predicts death within a year. There is one hope, the new "miracle drug", cortisone. Ed agrees to the experimental treatment and rapidly improves, and soon is returning home to family and work. Then things begin to go wrong. When the stresses and strains of his "normal" life hit, Ed begins popping extra pills, then forging prescriptions and eventually spiralling completely out of control.

    I would not "spoil" the experience of this film by telling more of the plot.And it is an experience. This is extremely strong stuff, with scenes and dialogue that are shocking even now, and must have totally stunned - or horrified - the 1950s audiences.James Mason has one climactic line that is absolutely astonishing. Talk about quotable quotes! What would audiences - particulary middle-class conservative America - have thought?Mason is brilliant, and he gets great support from Barbara Rush, her tremulous emoting perfectly suited to this role. Walter Matthau avoids the "jock" cliches and delivers a believable picture of a regular, decent guy. In 1956 he had not taken on the persona we all know. Young Christopoher Olsen is totally convincing as the son who, in his fathert's eyes, doesn't quite "measure up".

   The screenplay was written by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum,  with uncredited assistance from Gavin Lambert (Inside Daisy Clover) and Clifford Odets (Golden Boy), and evidently Mason and Ray contributed the first twenty minutes. The final result, however,  is literate, witty and could not be faulted. It is taught and tight - not a wasted word or second on screen.The photography by Joe MacDonald (My Darling Clementine, Niagara) is first rate, excitingly using CinemaScope within the confines of the interiors. It is also nice to get a look at the Fox backlot substituting for middle-class America. In 1956 it was still intact, unsold to pay for the extravagances of Cleopatra.

   Finally there is the score by David Raksin (Laura, The Bad and the Beautiful). From the chirpy "school's out" opening to the subtle, drum throbbing buildup of tension as we approach the climax, the music dramatically and sparingly complements what is on the screen.

    This is a first-rate Hollywood drama. Forget the painteds backdrops occasionally glimpsed through a window, and James Mason's basic attempt at an American accent. It is a thought-provoking, exciting, intelligent drama, lost and forgotten for fifty years, but now happily on DVD. Do not miss it!

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Transfer Quality


    This film is one of a batch of five older films released by DV1 under the banner of Hollywood Classics. The other titles are The Black Windmill, Boom!, Secret Ceremony and Pretty Poison . Here's hoping the presentation on the others is as good as that of this movie.

    From the first seconds of the brilliant looking Fox trademark -WITH the CinemaScope extension - the image quality of this disc is totally satisfying.

    The image is extremenly sharp and clear, with some close up softness applied, very occasionally, to Barbara Rush.

    Colours are rich and vibrant and shadow detail and the blacks are excellent - very important in some of the interior scenes later in the film.

    Skin tones are first rate.

    Watching the film I was not aware of any artefats at all. It is a beautifully clean image.

    There is very minor aliasing on window drapes and slatted doors, but that is all. There is no level noise, and just the slightest grain.

    The feature is presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio and is 16x9 enhanced. This was the ratio of the general cinema CinemaScope release in the 50s, although in Sydney's Hoyts Cinemas (can't vouch for elsewhere) it would have been presented in a magnetic print with "Genuine 4-Track Stereophonic Sound" and in the ratio of 2.55:1.

    The layer change occurs at 63:55 and is barely noticeable.



Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


     There are no audio options on the disc, and no subtitles. Just English.

     The slick for the disc claims to be Dolby Digital 2, with one rear channel. I could only hear mono sound and nothing in the rear. Probably the stereo tracks for the film no longer exist. Pity.

    The audio is, however, clear  sharp and full with just the slightest background hiss. There is the occasional pop or crackle, but very little.

    The movie is dialogue driven, and every syllable is crystal clear, without any hint of sync problem.

    It would have been good to hear the score in stereo, but the reproduction was quite satisfactory.




Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use




    A very basic menu is presented against three publicity shots for the film, accompanied by awful synthesised throbbing "music" - definitely not from the film.

   The menu choices are :


                                      Chapter Selection - twelve chapters on two screens

                                      Theatrical Trailer



Original Theatrical Trailer (2:40)

    This is a welcome oddity.

    A seated James Mason speaks directly to the camera introducing his "exciting" first movie as producer, followed by highlights from the film.

    The trailer is presented something approximating 1.78:1, 16x9 enhanced and originally CinemaScope, but chopped off at the sides.

    It is VERY poor quality, but fun to see.



R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    There has not as yet been a Region 1 release of this title.

    It has been released in Region 2. This release appears to be indentical to the Region 4 disc, but costs approximately AU$40!!



      A truly gripping and bold drama that is given an astonishingly good transfer to disc, on a par with many heralded "restorations".

     The sound is disappointing in what it is not, rather than what it is.I missed the directional sound that was part of the enjoyment of these scope movies of the 50s.

     Highly recommended.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Garry Armstrong (BioGarry)
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
Review Equipment
DVDOnkyo-SP500, using Component output
DisplayPhilips Plasma 42FD9954/69c. Calibrated with THX Optimizer. This display device is 16x9 capable. This display device has a maximum native resolution of 1080i.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to DVD player. Calibrated with THX Optimizer.
AmplificationOnkyo TX-DS777
SpeakersVAF DC-X fronts; VAF DC-6 center; VAF DC-2 rears; LFE-07subwoofer (80W X 2)

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