Bigger Than Life (1956)

Directed by Nicholas Ray

  Bigger Than Life is an American DeLuxe Color CinemaScope film made in 1956 directed by Nicholas Ray and starring James Mason, who also co-wrote and produced the film, about a school teacher and family man whose life spins out of control upon becoming addicted to cortisone. The film co-stars Barbara Rush as his wife and Walter Matthau as his closest friend, a fellow teacher. Though it was a box-office flop upon its initial release, many modern critics hail it as a masterpiece and brilliant indictment of contemporary attitudes towards mental illness and addiction. In 1963, Jean-Luc Godard named it one of the ten best American sound films ever made.

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Storyline: 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.

Drugs And The Man

5 February 2006 | by ccrivelli2005 (Rome, Italy) – See all my reviews

Nicholas Ray was one of the greatest directors to come out of Hollywood. His movies are always about something and that something has a cinematic flair that makes the experience thought provoking and thoroughly entertaining.

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Here is Cortisone the excuse for a slap in the face of a society that was getting more complacent and more spoiled with an avalanche of “new” things coming to overwhelm our daily lives. “We’re dull, we’re all dull” tells James Mason to his wife. Barbara Rush is superb as a Donna Reed type with a monster in the house. James Mason, a few years away from Lolita, also produced this rarely seen classic and gives a performance of daring highs. Highly recommended to movie lovers everywhere.

Terrifying

29 March 2006 | by Mark Kinsler (Lancaster, Ohio USA) – See all my reviews

This is an excellent movie. I saw it once, and I never wish to see it again. I grew up in a household like this, only there was never a solution to my father’s mania, depression, and incredible anger.

About all I can say about Mr Mason’s performance, and that of Ms Rush, is that they could have been my parents, and I could have been that kid. It never got to the point where I was offered up like Isaac, but the rest of it was right, right down to the speech where the father condemns all children because they’re ignorant. I’d heard that one. His wife was helpless; they all are.

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I do not know where the screenwriters got their dialog, but I hope they didn’t learn it the way I did. As it happened, I was terrified and transfixed while watching it, only calming down after the father realized that something was wrong, and vowed to correct it, and there was a means of correcting it.

When the movie was over–I don’t know if I watched it in the theater or on TV–I had to go home, where there was still rage, and no solution to it. I would have been nine years old.

There was a time that I wanted my parents to see that movie, in the hope that they’d realize that this was how they acted, and stop it.

It never happened. They were divorced years later. My father was angry and crazy right up to the day he died three years ago. My mother, in her nursing home in Cleveland, maintains that I must be making it all up.

M Kinsler

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Best Manic Depressive portrayal

10/10
Author: HEFILM from French Polynesia
5 February 2006

A fast moving gutsy view of what happens within a family when one member becomes manic, in this case from prescription drug addiction/ abuse. A subject that only became widely talked about years and years after this groung breaking film. Pointed out as the last film director Ray made that was set in “modern” times. The end of a cycle for him and one that was personal to Ray who struggled with addictions and troubled home life.

There are two other reviewers who need a bit of a lashing. One innocently enough thinks that Barbara Rush, is Barbara Bel Geddes. Another one thinks the situation of the home craziness being kept at home is wrong and unreal of dated. Sorry Charlie, you’ve got some of your facts about the plot wrong and you’ve never seen this kind of craziness.

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I’ve personally seen this kind of Manic behavior in real life and this is one of the best, probably the best representation of it ever on the screen, including the religious mania aspects. If you find these aspects funny, they are in their horrible absurdity, very true to the way these manias attach themselves to Manic Depressive behavior. This movie mostly concentrates on the manic side of it.

Definitely worth seeing on the big screen or in widescreen. James Mason is a good as he ever was, and he was awfully good many times. This is a great movie on many levels and his performance is one of the best put on film. What restraints were forced on the movie by the era it was made in, actually make it better and more scary than a film which can show vomiting and other drug side effects. This is psychologically horrifying. This emotional craziness is grim enough on its own and makes it all about the drama of the situation rather than the hype and tabloid parts.

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The scenes with the son dealing with his own father’s behavior are especially unsettling and moving. The whole cast is good. Matthau fans will find him perhaps not getting to show all he can do here,but he’s good as the buddy character.

Pretty much everything works in this film, you can pull symbols out of it if you want, there are plenty to find, but it plays out as fascinating reality.

This films reputation is good, but it needs to be more widely seen.

Great 1950s Subversive Cinema!

Author: Skot Christopherson from San Francisco, CA
2 May 2000

This film, much like the melodramas of Douglas Sirk, has far more going on than meets the eye. James Mason’s character, after getting whacked out of Cortizone (a “Miracle Drug”) indeed becomes hysterical and abusive. But he was made ill in the first place by the strain caused his intensely driven lifestyle, where he kept two jobs to finance his family’s social and financial ascent.

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What the viewer has to watch for is what his character says during his cortizone-induced delusions. His criticisms of his wife, kid, PTA and society in general are over-the-top, but essentially valid. It’s a classic narrative device: by allowing a main character a way out of societal responsibility and place (In this case, being bombed on Cortizone), he is allowed to comment on and criticize American society directly without actually threatening the status quo. and in the case of 1950s America, that’s a monolithic status quo to criticize.

Bigger Than Life was extremely controversial upon its release, and it was not a financial success. Mason, who produced the film as well as starring in it, blamed its failure on its use of the then-novel widescreen CinemaScope format. American critics panned the film, considering it melodramatic and heavyhanded. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it tedious, “dismal”, and “more pitiful than terrifying to watch”.

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However, the film was popular with critics at the influential magazine Cahiers du cinéma. Jean-Luc Godard called it one of the ten best American sound films. Likewise, François Truffaut praised the film, noting the “intelligent, subtle” script, the “extraordinary precision” of Mason’s performance, and the beauty of the film’s CinemaScope photography.

Modern critics have pointed out Ray’s use of widescreen cinematography to depict the interior spaces of a family drama, rather than the open vistas typically associated with the format, as well as his use of extreme close-ups in portraying the main character’s psychosis and megalomania. The film is also recognized for its multi-layered examination of the American nuclear family in the Eisenhower era.

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While the film can be read as a straightforward exposé on medical malpractice and the overuse of prescription drugs in modern American society, it has also been seen as a critique of consumerism, the male-dominated traditional family structure, and the claustrophobic conformism of suburban life. Truffaut saw Ed’s drug-influenced speech to the parents of the parent-teacher association as having fascist overtones. The film has also been interpreted as an examination of masculinity and a leftist critique of the low salaries of public school teachers in the United States.

Could have been a chiller

6/10
Author: Igenlode Wordsmith from England
10 May 2008

I finally caught up with this film at the National Film Theatre after missing it at least twice on late-night television broadcasts — and I suppose by that point I had inflated expectations. But I’m afraid I actually felt rather let down.

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Praised for its ‘taut’ 95-minute length and lauded as a ‘searing critique’ of 1950s American middle-class society, “Bigger than Life” certainly wasn’t supposed to be boring; and it does indeed have a tense psychotic climax near the end. It did seem to take an awfully long time to get there, though, and judging by overheard conversation on the way out, the snoring from the row behind, and the surreptitious rearrangements of limbs around me in the hot auditorium, I wasn’t the only one to feel that way…

The film came across as falling between two stools; I wasn’t certain if it was being presented as a realistic social drama or an exploitation horror/ thriller. Considered in the latter light, it would obviously carry an awful lot of tedious excess baggage, but as a social/medical exposé it seems massively overwrought, and the ending (studio-imposed?) sits ill with either. Moral issues of quality of life — is it better to lose the patient physically or mentally? — appear to be flirted with briefly and then abandoned in favour of all-out psycho thrills.

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Under a different director, the material might have made for a good horror movie. With a different treatment I can see it as a ‘social issues’ film in the old style, like “The Black Legion” or “Dead End” (both of which are also effective thrillers in their own right)… and I can just about grasp how it has been portrayed as a black-comedy satire on an American family stereotype. But despite the presence of the talented James Mason (often looking bizarrely flattened as the film attempted to contort him into an ultra-widescreen frame that I found frankly off-putting — perhaps the weird visual constructions were a deliberate attempt to set the viewers’ world on edge?) I couldn’t feel that the existing picture was really satisfactory in any of these fields, let alone in a theoretical synthesis of all of them.

I’d say that its most effective strand is probably in the treatment of the final weekend as straight-out chiller tension in the style of Kubrick’s “The Shining”, as the central character becomes increasingly irrational. (Kubrick’s version in particular, since his adaptation shares the same issue in that it’s hard to keep any audience sympathy for a character acting weirdly when you can’t see inside his head — he becomes pure monster, losing a potential dimension thereby.)

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Elsewhere, there seem to be too many elements tossed into the mix and then apparently abandoned: Ed’s taxi work, the attractive young teacher, money issues (I’m sure there’s supposed to be some sub-plot about the orange dress, but whatever that strand is boiling up to, it never appears on-screen), forging prescriptions, school and parent politics — the film keeps on throwing fresh strands in with a scattergun effect, but doesn’t tie them together. Maybe it’s realism, in that real life doesn’t match up to the neat significance of Chekhov’s first-act gun: but as drama it left me feeling pulled through a hedge backwards.

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