Bigger Than Life ~ (USA, 1956) ~ DVD

Nicholas Ray’s film was based on an actual story at the time, and it’s a surprisingly ambitious film, taking on drug abuse, the failure of organized medicine, the way society undervalues our educators, the underbelly of conformity and the blandness of the 1950’s. All that and more. But what fascinated me about the film was the striking black and white imagery and the mostly subtle but at times expressionistic use of shadows.

I rented this film because it played a minor role in Dana Spiotta’s new book Stone Arabia. A character in it had an obsession for the films of James Mason. All he had to do was note that James Mason always appears in a scene with a bathrobe. True ‘dat, I guess. Because he had one on here. Mason plays Ed Avery, a school teacher who has to work two jobs (he doubles a few nights a week as a taxi cab dispatcher) but keeps this fact from his wife, because he doesn’t want her to think of the job as demeaning to him. When Ed begins to have pains and blackouts, he is diagnosed with a disease of the arteries that causes inflammation and severe pain. The doc suggests the new miracle drug cortisone, but warns him that it’s new and may not even work, and besides, who knows what the side-effects might be? The cortisone pills do work wonders, but he begins to abuse the prescription which induces something akin to paranoia. He becomes a different man with delusions of grandeur and alienates those around him, his best friend (a plodding Walter Matthau role), his wife and his young son who up to this point has idolized him.

The film really skewers suburbia and the malaise of the 50’s. James Mason and Barbara Rush (who plays his wife) are fine, but I didn’t much care for Matthau (never did). Child acting seems to have come a long way. The kid in this is horrible, just seemed amateurish. But the real star of the film is the use of shadows – shadows as metaphor and as ominous and looming trouble. There is one just perfect scene when Mason (at the height of his addiction now) abuses his son in his studies demanding perfection. As he hovers over him, a ‘bigger than life’ shadow looms large against the wall behind them. You can’t help but be drawn to that ominous presence just behind the both of them. Just great cinematography.

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