This week one of the great "unseen" American films, Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life (1956), makes its debut on Criterion DVD and Blu-Ray. Over the years, it has been selected for things like Film Comment's best movies unreleased on video, Jonathan Rosenbaum's 100 greatest films, and Jean-Luc Godard's ten greatest American films. Martin Scorsese included a tantalizing clip of it in his great 1995 documentary A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies. In 2002, a screening of it turned up in my town. I saw it along with about 100 other lucky people and was able to confirm its greatness.
What's peculiar is that it came just a year after Ray's big hit Rebel Without a Cause, which is one of the best-known and most iconic of all American films. So what happened to Bigger Than Life? Why has it become such a rarity? I'm not really sure, save to say that it was extremely controversial, and greatly upset the film censors of the time. It was also a financial flop. Most likely those involved with it just wanted to sweep it under the rug and move on.
However, I doubt Ray himself was among them. Nicholas Ray (1911-1979) was a bisexual and a user of drugs and alcohol, and he seemed to like to surround himself with younger people rather than his own peers. Later in his life, he taught filmmaking courses to a group of lucky students. Among his disciples were James Dean, Dennis Hopper, Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch. Not to mention that the French critics of the 1950s such as Godard and Francois Truffaut worshipped him. In 1957, Godard wrote: "There was theatre (Griffith), poetry (Murnau), painting (Rossellini), dance (Eisenstein), music (Renoir). Henceforth there is cinema. And the cinema is Nicholas Ray."
I get the impression that Ray was a very sensitive man, an artist greatly in touch with his emotional side and able to communicate his emotions well, especially in a visual sense. Like his contemporaries Vincente Minnelli and Douglas Sirk, he had a taste for melodrama and for the Cinemascope frame, and there are very few comedies in his filmography. He had an uncanny knack for establishing a physical space that somehow echoed his characters' emotional state. (He was once an apprentice under Frank Lloyd Wright.) Picture the planetarium in Rebel Without a Cause, the courtyard in In a Lonely Place (1950), the hilltop hideout in Johnny Guitar (1954) or the snow-covered countryside in On Dangerous Ground (1952).
Ray made his debut in 1948 with They Live by Night. It opened to a successful run in Europe and came to America in 1949, and it was one of the best and most fully-formed debuts in film history. He already seemed to understand the medium and was in command of a complete bag of tricks. It was a lovers-on-the-run movie that inspired a thousand imitations, with the wounded, sad-looking couple Cathy O'Donnell and Farley Granger, appearing onscreen some distance away from the polished movie stars of the time, and occupying dingy, depressing backdrops, but glowing with genuine passion and chemistry.
But despite a few hits and a large handful of classics, Ray's career proceeded in fits and starts, including a few stabs at television and some jobs for hire, finishing up films begun by others. I suspect that on the whole his films were too potent, and too full of blood and lust and life to please large audiences. The Western Johnny Guitar is a perfect example. Its glaring colors burst from the screen, its performances are high-pitched to the point of near-hysteria, and the battle between tough females Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge overwhelms all else. But it's a gloriously controlled film, with every piece in place exactly as Ray intended. Incidentally, Johnny Guitar is another cult film that is AWOL from DVD and Blu-Ray in the United States.
But thankfully Bigger Than Life has finally found its place, and the Blu-Ray looks even better than I could have hoped or imagined. James Mason, who produced, stars as Ed Avery, a schoolteacher who secretly works a second job in a taxi company and suffers from strange pains. Finally he succumbs and is sent to the hospital, where his treatment includes the experimental drug Cortisone. Eventually he starts to abuse the drug and begins experiencing wild, dangerous mood swings. He begins suspecting his wife (Barbara Rush) of cheating with his best friend Wally (Walter Matthau), and he begins acting demonically toward his son Richie (Christopher Olsen), berating him for failing to catch a football pass.
Ray uses the suburban house to brilliant, frightening effect, emphasizing its blandness by decorating it with posters of exotic places around the world, as well as a symbolic football from Ed's glory days and the even more symbolic staircase (which, like Ed, goes up and down). As Ed spins more murderously out of control, the house grows darker, and scary, vulture-like shadows begin to spring up, and even an early and startling use of a cracked mirror. This is tough stuff, and it's no wonder that audiences didn't flock to see it. Some writers figured out early on that it was a critique of the happy, suburban lifestyle that everyone was supposed to want in the 1950s, which probably drove more customers away.
Since then, audiences have seen a zillion thrillers like this, where a nice, normal family must suddenly deal with a madman they thought they could trust, but even so you've never seen one quite this good. The Blu-Ray extras include a commentary track by critic Geoff Andrew, a half-hour television interview with Ray from 1977, a "video appreciation" of the movie by author Jonathan Lethem, a video interview with Ray's widow Susan, a trailer, and a liner notes essay by critic B. Kite. Don't miss this. Even this early in the year, I guarantee that Bigger Than Life will be on my list of the year's top five Blu-Rays. And may Criterion unleash more Nicholas Ray in the near future.