Bigger Than Life

Bigger Than Life (1956) movie poster

(1956) dir. Nicholas Ray
viewed: 04/26/10

Bigger Than Life is a film that I’ve been wanting to see for several years.  While living in England briefly in the mid-1990’s, I chanced to see Ray’s first feature film, They Live By Night (1949) and while trying to find reading about film studies at the local library, stumbled upon a book about Ray, biographical but also offering a critical overview of his films.  And of the films on which the book focused, the one that sounded particularly interesting was Bigger Than Life, but oddly enough, that film hadn’t been available in the United States on video or DVD.  Until now.

Critereon released Bigger Than Life earlier this month and so I queued it up and my long wait was over.

The film stars James Mason, who also acted as producer, as a small town schoolteacher who is suffering from a rare disorder which causes him great physical pain and eventually leads to his physical collapse.  His illness comes as a death sentence, except he has the one chance: to try the experimental new drug cortisone, which could save his life.  He agrees immediately and starts to bounce back.

However, Mason begins abusing the drug, which gives him turns of mania and psychosis.  He becomes “bigger than life”, becoming paranoid, superior, and dissatisfied with the life and family he has.  Ultimately, his mania reaches a biblical extreme in which he decides that he must sacrifice his son to keep him pure and save him from failure.

While the film falls mostly into the family melodrama genre, it’s very much about the banality of that world and ultimately the fragility of it as well.  Mason, before he becomes sick, has secretly taken a second job at a cab company to supplement the family income.  Maintaining the small family home, maintaining the small social life, is more than he can handle.  The family home is the site of much of the drama, and Ray uses the interiors to great effect at different points through the film.

It’s a tremendous and dark film, and the film isn’t specifically about the concerns of cortisone as a treatment or even Mason’s abuse of the drug, but rather about the pandora’s box of stifled psychosis behind the facade of soft-spoken, homey America.  Many critics consider it to be Ray’s finest work, and it’s easy to see why.  Mason’s world, initially genial and soft as an American sit-com of the time, turns into a ranging disaster area.  His house, his home, his castle, humble and banal, is too small for him once he feels his oats, playing catch football inside the house with his son, running ragged and overenergized, smashing things.

And his son and his wife are not up to snuff either.  His symbolically deflated football trophy, which he takes from the mantle, reinflates and hands to his son, furthers this notion of the striving dreams of the man, who now ceding them from himself and passing them to his child, now demands results, results he never achieved.  Their house, decorated with travel posters from around the world, a world they’ve never afforded to venture into, also shows the trap that their lives have come to stand for to him.

And when the moment of traumatic violence comes, it smashes through the railing of the stairs, breaking literally, the house that has held them as the whole world comes tumbling down.  It’s not surprising that this dark-natured film played poorly in the 1950’s when it was released.  It’s a nightmare of 1950’s American life, the nuclear family, the fragility of the structures and the repressed hopes and dreams and what they can fester into.

An excellent, excellent film, well worth seeing again.  And Nicholas Ray himself, his films are well-worth re-investigating.  A major figure in American cinema.

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