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Sunday 9 October 2011

Burl reviews Bigger Than Life! (1956)

Ha ha, hi! You know, I always have loved the films of Nicholas Ray, at least the ones I’ve seen! And that’s quite a few of them! I watched this one, Bigger Than Life, for the second time recently, and let me tell you it’s still as terrifying and awkward as ever! It’s a really crazy movie actually – let me tell you a bit about it!

It seems that the great James Mason has been cast, as unlikely as it seems, as a mild-mannered middle-American schoolteacher who secretly moonlights as a taxi dispatcher a couple of afternoons a week! It’s pretty refreshing in a movie from this era to see the noble dad actually struggling in the midst of one of America’s most economically stable decades ever – maybe that’s why he keeps it a secret from his wife, ha ha! Anyway, Ed (that’s Mason’s character) is having terrible pains in different parts of his body, pains that cause him to grimace, clutch at things and sometimes faint, and that cause the musical score to swell dramatically, and wife Barbara Rush, well known from When Worlds Collide, to worry!

After a terrifying battery of tests (and one bum-probing joke, surprise!), the medicos determine that Ed is suffering from a condition whose name I can’t remember! It’s potentially fatal, and Ed is chosen to receive the new wonder-drug cortisone! This, it’s explained to him, is a hormone, which must have been intended to be terrifying to him and the men in the audience, as hormones are generally connected in the popular imagination with women more than men!

So Ed, previously a nice guy, becomes first a manic familyman and then a terrifying despot, scaring the milkman, taking charge of the PTA and trying to play catch with his son more aggressively than even Jimmy Piersall’s father ever dared! His concerns take on Biblical overtones and he determines that he’s the new Abraham and that his little Leave-It-To-Beaver son must be sacrificed! It’s only through the interference of family friend and local gym coach Walter Matthau - well-known for his appearances in both Grumpy Old Men and Grumpier Old Men - that tragedy is averted!

By that time what had seemed to be a fairly standard-issue Sirkian fifties drama has become a near-Expressionist horror picture, full of menacing shadows and lurid lighting! Ha ha, it was great, and it made me wish Ray had tried his hand at a few flat-out screamers before giving up on Hollywood and decamping for Europe!

The movie’s great, and even Mason, who at first looks totally out of place in this über-American setting, manages to convince us he is who he claims to be! The casting is baffling only in the movie’s first half; by the time Ed becomes a raging megalomaniac, the presence of a powerfully mannered Englishman, who could and did play everything from Rommel to Captain Nemo to Humbert Humbert, makes a lot more sense!

I give Bigger Than Life four doses of cortisone in well under the recommended twenty-four hour span! It’s a crazy classic of middle-class insanity, an X-ray (ha ha!) into the heart of a problematic value system and, relevantly enough, a scathing indictment of the medical profession and the desperate need for a proper social safety net in the US! Are you listening, America – Nick Ray is telling you something! 

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