Nicholas Ray’s *Bigger Than Life*

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Nicholas Ray’s Bigger than Life (1956) got a fair amount of attention last year as a Criterion Collection DVD/Blueray rerelease.  I finally got around to watching it, and it’s pretty mind-blowingly great.  A must see!

Here’s Criterion’s summary:

Though ignored at the time of its release, Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life is now recognized as one of the great American films of the 1950s. When a friendly, successful suburban teacher and father (James Mason, in one of his most indelible roles) is prescribed cortisone for a painful, possibly fatal affliction, he grows dangerously addicted to the experimental drug, resulting in his transformation into a psychotic and ultimately violent household despot. This Eisenhower-era throat-grabber, shot in expressive CinemaScope, is an excoriating take on the nuclear family. That it came in the day of Father Knows Best makes it all the more shocking—and wildly entertaining.

As is typical for Criterion, it’s a great package including a neat interview with Jonathan Lethem who subjects the movie to an obsessive & smart close reading.  I was pleased with myself because as we watched it I kept muttering to Sarah about The Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Incredible Shrinking Man (the latter of which we watched with the kids recently) — the movie includes a fascinating subtext about masculinity and size, whether one is impressively large or diminished, “shrunken” — and Lethem mentioned both movies.  (I actually wondered if he’s working on a project about 1950s Hollywood films or something as the commentary was especially thorough.  Here’s an interview with Lethem about the film.) There’s also a 1977 public television interview with Ray that’s actually not so thrilling but which I nevertheless enjoyed watching (partly for the amusing PBS aesthetics).

Here’s a screenshot from an amazing scene as Mason has turned into a terrifyingly menacing tyrant of a father, his shadow looming up behind him like a goblin (Lethem suggests that this shadow brings to mind James Brown or Elvis Presley and so invokes the 50s mass/pop culture that is otherwise seemingly absent from the film):

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Sean Axmaker observes in Parallax View that as Mason becomes addicted to the cortisone prescribed to him for his mysterious affliction, he becomes

like a literal monster in the home, often dominating his family from on high on the stairs or looking down from the second floor. Ray, a master of widescreen film-making, beautifully isolates and distances characters in the horizontal frame while Mason progressively dominates the screen, finally physically looming from above. Yet the film’s most resonant image may be his midnight crying fit, curled up in the den and sobbing to himself, a scene that evokes depression, fear, shame and his complete helplessness in a situation out of his control. This isn’t some stoic show of emotion but a complete breakdown at the mercy of runaway emotions that he can’t contain or even process, and this scene of male vulnerability is almost unique in its era, as brave and bracing a confession you’ll see in American cinema.

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In plot description, the movie could sound cheesy and like some kind of “disease of the week” message film — it was apparently based on a New Yorker article about prescription drug abuse — but it is deeply weird, resonant, and gorgeous, as good as All That Heaven Allows or Invasion of the Body Snatchers (to name two films from the same year or so)– we both loved it.  Made me muse about the possibility of a class about out-of-control/ in-crisis masculinity — I’d definitely recommend using it in that context.

Next on our list of Ray films, Bogart in In A Lonely Place (which I’ve seen but a while ago) and They Live by Night (never seen).

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2 Responses

  1. They Live by Night is incredible. Thanks for reminding me. I’ll have to check this one out too.

  2. We watched last night, incredible.
    Did you notice jerry mather (the beaver) painting at the easel in the grade school class, when Mason subs for the late teacher?

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