Thursday, March 14, 2013

312. Bigger Than Life (1956)

Running Time: 95 minutes
Directed By: Nicholas Ray
Written By: Cyril Hume, Richard Malbaum, from article by Burton Roueche
Main Cast: James Mason, Barbara Rush, Walter Matthau, Robert F. Simon, Christopher Olsen
Click here to view the trailer


Earlier today I wrote about "Rebel Without a Cause" and how it was a step in the right direction after Nicholas Ray's previous two BOOK entries, "In a Lonely Place" and "Johnny Guitar". I commented that certainly a step in the right direction was good, but two or three steps would've been better. "Bigger Than Life" WAS those two or three steps I was hoping for.

James Mason stars as Ed Avery, the husband/father of a middle class, suburban family (a wife and one son) and a school teacher. Ed enjoys his job, is well liked by his peers and is faithful to his wife. In fact, the only secret that he has from her is that he's holding down a second job, as a taxicab dispatcher; a secret he keeps because he thinks that she'll feel that the job is not good enough for him. The only problem is that, every once in a while, Ed has spells. The spells consist of Ed doubling over in pain and pop up at different locations on his body - anywhere from his head to his abdomen. One night, after a dinner party and during Easter school break (fitting that I watched this now, only weeks before Easter) Ed blacks out in his bedroom and is taken to the hospital. After running a flurry of tests, doctors discover that Ed has a rare condition that is causing his arteries to become inflamed. Under normal circumstances, the condition is fatal at approximately a year after the first attack and Ed has been having the attacks for six months. However, there is a new "wonder drug", Cortisone and if it works, it can completely eliminate Ed's pain and he'll survive. Well, the drug works and Ed makes a full recovery, returning home and to his job at the school. But, all is not well with the world, as Ed begins to develop psychosis, a side effect of taking too much Cortisone. At first Ed begins to forget when he's taken his dose and starts taking more than prescribed and by film's end, he's addicted to the stuff. As a result, Ed begins to lash out at his family. I'll leave the rest for you to discover.



Isn't it a great feeling when you watch a movie and a certain line hits you and you say "WOW, what a line!", having never heard of it before. Then, when you're finished with the film, you go on to discover that actually the line is a famous one from the film and you feel as if you picked up on it, without anyone else telling you it was in there. It's a little hard to explain, but it's like watching "A Streetcar Named Desire" and hearing Brando yell "Stella!". Even if it's your first time seeing ASND, you KNOW that line is coming and when it comes, it doesn't have quite the same impact, because you knew about it beforehand. With the "GOD WAS WRONG" line, I had never heard of it before and when James Mason delivered it, it sent a chill down my spine. What a line and what delivery! In fact, what a movie! I was beginning to wonder if the 1950s were ever going to start impressing me (seeing as how this is the 50s season and the only 50s movie to really WOW me so far have been "Wages of Fear" and "Le Trou", the latter of which is actually from 1960) and then James Mason and his wonderful portrayal of a man with psychosis shows up and knocks a home run, right down the centerfield line and into the parking lot!

After doing some perusing of the IMDB message boards, I found that a few people were making comparisons between "Bigger Than Life" and other movies, like "American Beauty" and "The Shining". I think "The Shining" reference is a good one, as obviously Mason goes a little whacko and even when Richie goes to hide in the bathroom, with the telephone, I kind of though Mason was going to pull a "Here's Johnny!" and bust right through. The "American Beauty" reference has less merit, but before I even saw someone make that comparison, I couldn't help but be reminded of the 1999 Kevin Spacey film during the dinner scene, when Ed makes deductions and realizes that Lou sneaked Richie a glass of milk. It was eerily reminiscent (even in the way the camera was set-up) to the dinner scene in "American Beauty" and once again I started to suspect certain actions from Mason, like as if he were to suddenly rise and smash the milk pitcher against the wall.

Even the trailer is great, as Mason himself pops up and talks directly to us (he produced the film as well) and tells us that when he's an audience member, he looks for excitement, entertainment and situations that actually impact regular people. Way to go Mr. Mason, you called it dude! It took some convincing for me to finally come around, but "Bigger Than Life" finally sold me on James Mason. I mean, I always knew he was a great actor, but he was this classically trained actor, this guy who did everything by the book and to perfection, lacking any real character almost. "Bigger Than Life" was controversial for it's time, that's obvious to even me and Mason really pushed himself and delivered in a big way. I loved how this movie took you inside the suburban seemingly perfect home and tore that facade to shreds. We got to see inside these plastic people's house, inside their real problems and what goes on when the picture perfect world crumbles.

I was going to come in here and nitpick the fact that the film ended happily, because everyone knows how much I LOVE an unhappy ending. But, you know what? I think Ed Avery and his family deserved a happy ending. The character was too likeable to have to suffer further and the film was filled with so much unease, that when it came time for "FIN", you wanted that hug and kiss and to know that these people were going to be alright. Part horror/suspense, part drama, filled with great acting from all the principles and something that we can all probably relate to, at least a little bit. How many of us have known someone who went through a scary medical ordeal, something to which the diagnosis had to be hunted for and something for which new medicine was prescribed, one with nasty side effects that hopefully never presented themselves...but there was always that possibility that they would?

Something else to ponder before I leave you for the night: Did Ed deserve our sympathy, because he deliberately took too much Cortisone, which led to him being the only one to blame for his delirious mental state or did the medicine cause his memory to give out, making him unaware when it was time for a new dose, therefore deserving of our sympathies?

RATING: 8.5/10  Not an out and out '10', but close enough for me. It's about time the 50s showed up to play ball!



No special words about Nicholas Ray, but a quick ranking of his four "1001" offerings...

1. Bigger Than Life
2. Rebel Without a Cause
3. In a Lonely Place
4. Johnny Guitar

Black Orpheus (1959 - Marcel Camus)
The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957 - Jack Arnold)
Artists and Models (1955 - Frank Tashlin)
Shane (1953 - George Stevens)
Kiss Me Deadly (1955 - Robert Aldrich)

March 14, 2013  8:36pm

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