Imagine the bracing shock movie audiences, used to the comical and heartwarming depictions of suburban domesticity of Father Knows Best and I Love Lucy, must have felt in 1956 when they encountered Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life - a lush, Cinemascope vision of a seemingly sane man (James Mason) who gradually becomes a monster to his family.
One of Hollywood's first - and darkest - cautionary tales about the spiritual blankness of cookie-cutter suburbia, Bigger Than Life (The Criterion Collection, $40 DVD and Blu-ray) understandably flopped and has never before been available on home video. Today, the film strongly recalls The Shining, another story about a man driven by his failings to try to murder his wife and son. Instead of ghosts, though, the demons that possess Mason are steroids, used to treat a mysterious illness that racks his body with pain.
The drugs work, but Mason soon starts to abuse them, and the pills give rise to the rage and frustration he suffers while living up to his responsibilities as a father and husband on his measly schoolteacher's salary. Ray, who was coming off the biggest hit of his career (Rebel Without a Cause), and Mason, who had been nominated for an Oscar for 1954's A Star is Born (and also produced Bigger Than Life), proved natural artistic partners, using a deceptively simple tale to explore prescient themes of the implosion of the middle class, the darkness lurking beneath Norman Rockwell's America and the unexpected consequences of our increasing reliance on prescription medications.
Bigger Than Life looks positively striking on Blu-ray, the high-def image showcasing Ray's bold, widescreen compositions and ingenious use of light and shadow. The disc includes several substantial supplements, including a half-hour interview with novelist Jonathan Lethem (Chronic City), whose enthusiastic, intelligent appraisal of the film reveals subtle subtexts (such as the apparent, unspoken homosexuality of the family friend played by a young Walter Matthau). There is also a vintage 1977 episode from the TV series Camera Three in which Ray is interviewed by a visibly nervous, awestruck host about his career.
* * *
Leisurely paced but as gripping as a relentless action thriller, Olivier Assayas' Summer Hours (Criterion, $40 DVD and Blu-ray) is a moving, compassionate look at three generations of a French family dealing with the death of their art-loving matriarch. Unlike most American pictures about ordinary people, which often anchor their plots around some sort of contrived situation or heightened drama, Assayas refrains from histrionics, allowing instead for the relatable humanity of his characters to carry the show.
The film opens with a long sequence in which the three grown children of Helene (Edith Scob) gather with their families at her sprawling country estate to celebrate her 75th birthday. Helene's kids (Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling and Jeremie Renier) clearly adore their mother, but they've also long grown busy with their careers and families - two of them don't even live in France any longer - and the birthday celebration captures the easy rapport and occasional awkwardness of family gatherings among relatives who feel vaguely guilty about not being nearly so close as they once were.
The rest of Summer Hours follows what happens after Helene dies, and her children must decide whether to respect her wishes and maintain her estate as a family heirloom or sell it off in pieces to museums and divide the money. The differences of opinion and bruised feelings that result are handled in a subtle, empathetic manner by Assayas, who uses his story to explore the ways in which cultural values and traditions among family members are sometimes diluted, if not lost entirely, over succeeding generations. The film's astonishing closing sequence argues that prevailing tastes and attitudes might change with the times, but certain things - including the way we look at the world - are infused into us by the people who raise us, never to be completely lost.
The disc includes a half-hour interview with Assayas, in which he eloquently expounds on the story's themes and the ideas he was trying to express, as well as a 25-minute making-of featurette, comprised of footage shot on the set and including interviews with Berling and Binoche.