How is it that I'd never heard of this movie before?
"Bigger Than Life" is a dream come true for those movie fans (I count myself among them) who love the decade of the 1950s for its total cinematic schizophrenia. I can't think of another decade that created whole omnibuses of films more strongly opposed to one another. It seems that half of the filmmakers of the 50s were churning out earnest Technicolor pap that tried to sell the American public a version of the 50s that simply didn't exist yet which everyone so desperately wanted to believe did, while the other half were making movies about everything that was wrong with the very version of America the other half was clinging to. If you're a fan of subtext in films, and especially interested in seeing how filmmakers could work within the conventions of a genre while turning those conventions against themselves, the 50s are your decade. And for the ultimate master of subtext, look no further than Nicholas Ray.
There isn't a Ray film I've seen that isn't dripping in subtext, socio-political, sexual, gender-based, you name it. "Bigger Than Life" stars a towering James Mason as a family man who's turned into a literal monster when he becomes addicted to a drug that helps keep a life-threatening medical problem at bay. The film goes to some jaw-dropping places, especially toward the end, as Mason's character evolves from protector to worst nightmare and the picture-perfect family life depicted in the earlier parts of the film dissolve before our very eyes. However, Ray's point all along is that that picture-perfect family never really existed in the first place, and the drug on which Mason gets hooked brings out the "id" in him and the family dynamic that's been lurking there all along.
Ray was the rare director who could make the saturated Technicolor and massive Cinemascope aspect ratios of 1950s filmmaking work to his advantage and serve his artistic purposes, rather than simply be used to photograph pretty gowns and landscapes. In fact, despite its Cinemascope grandeur, "Bigger Than Life" is all about cramped interiors -- offices, bedrooms, one's own feverish mind -- and the skeletons in the closets, real and imagined, that are hiding there.
Bigger Than Life
Bigger Than Life
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Schoolteacher and family man Ed Avery, who's been suffering bouts of severe pain and even blackouts, is hospitalized with what's diagnosed as a rare inflammation of the arteries. Told by doctors that he probably has only months to live, Ed agrees to an experimental treatment: doses of the hormone cortisone. Ed makes a remarkable recovery, and returns home to his wife, Lou, and their son, Richie. He must keep taking cortisone tablets regularly to prevent a recurrence of his illness. But the "miracle" cure turns into its own nightmare as Ed starts to abuse the tablets, causing him to experience increasingly wild mood swings.
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