March 29, 2010

Bigger Than Life

Reviewer: James Van Maanen
Rating (out of 5):***(4 stars for Ray completists/aficianados)

I am a Nicholas Ray aficionado, so why I am giving Bigger Than Life only three stars (and barely that)?  Because, for all the little background beauties the film contains -- from its consistent and fascinating use of milk to the symbolic difference between a home’s upstairs and downstairs (and the DVD extras by Brooklyn writer Jonathan Lethem and Mr. Ray’s widow Susan point many of these out quite well) -- the foreground is non-stop melodrama served up in sledge-hammer style.  This was certainly not always the case in Ray’s work.  Consider In a Lonely Place, for me perhaps the best of his films, in which the fore-, middle- and background, not to mention theme and execution, are consistent and beautifully rendered throughout.
 
Bigger Than Life, however, is something else.  Never less than interesting, despite the very odd casting choice of James Mason in the leading role as a rather untypical American grade-school teacher, the movie tells the tale of a man with a probably fatal illness who is given the (at that time) new wonder drug Cortisone to relieve painful symptoms and save his life.  Trouble is, it’s addictive with crazy-making side-effects.  The film was made in the mid-1950s, when conformity was an art form and the USA has just endured the height and sudden decline of McCarthyism.  A full decade after the end of WWII, times were tougher for the struggling middle-class than was often let on, and so the leading character must moonlight for a taxi cab company (has that trade ever seen a classier dispatcher than James Mason?) without telling his wife.

Based on an article by Berton Roueché about a similar case history, published the year previous in The New Yorker, the movie, being a Hollywood product, must tread ever so gently on the doctors who actually prescribed the medication and upped the dosage to see how much their patient could tolerate. By blaming the victim, the movie turns this into a kind of Man With the Golden Mouth (the Preminger film Man With the Golden Arm was made just the year before). And the film’s ending, which is by any Hollywood standard a happy one, falls apart almost immediately upon consideration. You may also wonder, at one point, why our hero’s school-teacher friend has seen an article in a high-level medical journal which his own doctors evidently have not.

Yet Bigger Than Life holds you oddly rapt, due to all that “background detail” plus the director’s movement from a flat, almost-television-level look in the beginning to a frame full of odd angles and enormous shadows, as Mason’s character whacks further and further out. There’s some interesting acting on display, too. Mason is always worth watching and the under-rated Barbara Rush as his put-upon wife unveils layer after layer of anger, warmth, fear and hope. In the role of their young son Ritchie, Christopher Olsen does the standard, strained 50s-style “acting” required of kids of that day, while a relatively youthful Walter Matthau passes muster as the couple’s best friend. The musical score (by David Raksin) is of its time: over the top and telling us what to feel at every intersection. But, then, that’s what music was supposed to accomplish, back in the day.

High points of an otherwise rather prosaic screenplay (credited to Cyril Hume and frequent Bond movie scribe Richard Maibaum, with, according to the IMDB, un-credited help from Ray, Mason, Gavin Lambert and Clifford Odets!) include an interesting husband-wife conversation about being boring and the Mason character’s speech on parent-teacher night – which is both dead-on correct and utterly bizarre, coming as it does from a fellow who is clearly going ‘round the bend. Later the character gives his own three-word interpretation to the finale of the Bible’s Abraham & Isaac story, and it’s a lulu. There’s so much to enjoy in Bigger Than Life, that I probably should upgrade its star rating. It stands, I think, as a testament to Ray’s skill at battling Hollywood’s insistent kowtowing to the powers-that-be and the status quo. Don’t waste a moment wondering who won.

The DVD extras include those interviews with Lethem and the surprisingly youthful Mrs. Ray, plus a profile of the director, the original trailer for the film, and Criterion’s usual excellent commentary track, here featuring British critic Geoff Andrew, who wrote the book The Films of Nicholas Ray.

See Criterion trailer here.



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Posted by cphillips at March 29, 2010 11:13 AM
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