Bigger Than Life: Review
Nicholas Ray was one of the most innovative directors of the 1950s. His most famous claim to fame, Rebel Without a Cause is a well-revered movie that will forever stand as a bench mark for teen angst films, but it is not his only film from his most important period. Bigger Than Life represents the angst of post WWII adults facing the very real problem of addiction to so-called harmless pain pills.
Although Ray’s career was perceived as enigmatic of the times in which he lived, he has experienced unending accolades since his death in 1979, and Bigger stands tall amongst the best of them. Like most of Ray’s films the plot centers on a shattered or broken man and the ideal woman who loves him. Also true to form is the protagonist’s conflicted character, full of contradiction inherent to the complex and real people; most notable is the extreme contrast between brutality and tenderness, which is pure Ray.
In 1956, not too long after WWII, the American male was in the painful process of redefining himself and his place in what was perceived as the new perfect society. Ray was one of the few directors who cast a discerning eye upon societies unreasonable expectations of perfection. Bigger Than Life is the story of a mild teacher and family man played by James Mason (he also co-wrote and produced the film) whose life spins out of control when he inadvertently becomes dependent upon the pain relieving drug cortisone. Of course there are risks involved with the long-term use of the new wonder drug, including the effects it has upon one’s sanity. Mason ultimately falls victim to the trappings of the highly addictive medication, while desperately trying to maintain the illusion that everything is all right. The film co-stars Barbara Rush as his wife and Walter Matthau as his closest friend, in an early dramatic role as a fellow teacher.
The misunderstood melodrama was a huge flop when it was first released. This isn’t surprising considering most people wanted happy films when they went to the movies in those post war years. However, many modern critics hail it as a masterpiece and a brilliant indictment of the conformist 1950s suburbia. The ultra-stylish use of saturated colors and aggressive shot design is truly artistic in nature (it borders on the psychedelic). Ray’s combination of color and Cinemascope rivals Hitchcock for striking frame compositions and bold symbolism that present a gutsier social realism than most movie-goers of the time were use to. For the time period Bigger is remarkably candid and gritty, posing eternal questions about character versus environment. Offering no easy answers, the film more than holds its own when compared with other socially conscious films of the 1950's.
Films as strong and bold as Ray’s are truly ahead of their time. Ray’s style and choice of subject matter was a foreshadowing of things yet to come in the rebellious cinema of the 70’s. Had he come along a bit later, he would certainly have been given the same regard as, say, Sam Peckinpah. One look at Rebel Without a Cause will confirm that. Bigger Than Life may require a second look, but it is certainly worth the look.