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USA 1956
Directed by
Nicholas Ray
95 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2.5 stars

Bigger Than Life

Nicholas Ray’s  B grade nuclear family in crisis suburban melodrama, a return to the terrain of his iconic Rebel Without A Cause of the previous year, isn’t very good as a film but offers a good deal of fun largely thanks to James Mason’s performance as a loving husband and father who become psychotic as a result of self-medication.

Based upon an article by Berton Roueché that had appeared in The New Yorker magazine Bigger Than Life is the fact-based story of how Ed Avery (Mason) is prescribed cortisone in order to offset a rare life-threatening heart condition.  The drug is successful in treating the physical symptoms but results in a raft of psychological side-effects  – paranoia, delusions and aggressive behaviour that threaten his home, marriage and even his life.

Mason was the film’s producer and presumably saw an opportunity to impress with his portrayal of the unfortunate Ed but the film never rises above the programmatic, climaxing in a scene in which the psychotic Ed plans to sacrifice his son (Christopher Olsen) just as Abraham did Isaac. When his wife Lou (Barbara Rush) points out that God stopped Abraham, Ed inflamed with moral rectitude yells out ‘God was wrong”. It’s an unintentionally funny moment that is well-matched by the closing scene of the loving family reunited. Mason himself with his permanent 5 o’clock shadow and oily skin (presumably the consequence of his pomade oozing onto it) looks terrible with Walter Matthau as his gym-teacher buddy not looking much better.

If failing to be effective dramatically the film serves as a telling portrait of 1950s suburban America with Ray emphasising the mundanity of the Avery’s prosaic lives by hanging lots of tourist posters for European cities on their walls whilst the narrative serves to critique the patriarchal values which become more threatening as Ed’s psychosis emerges.  It was for these qualities (and their B-grade realization ) that the Nouvelle Vague critics championed the film, Ray being for them an exemplary director in his non-transparency. In one sense they were right but as with Rebel Ray ultimately opts to reinstate the happy family ideal.  If you want to see the same terrain explored with finesse the films of Douglas Sirk are far more rewarding.

 

 

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