In honor of his Centennial TCM has been airing the films of the director Nicholas Ray every Tuesday. This Tuesday TCM will be airing one of my personal favorite Ray films Bigger than Life at 8:00 PM EST. This also happens to be the premiere of the film on the channel.
I first became aware of Bigger than Life when Criterion released the film in 2010. My main reason for wanting to see it was simply I like to watch as much from the Criterion catalog as possible and I adore James Mason (Bigger than Life also stars Barbara Rush & Walter Matthau). The film, however, turned out a lot more intriguing than I first thought.
The film seems simple on the surface; James Mason is a kind father, husband, and teacher living in Suburbia who is suffering terrible pains which might be fatal. He is prescribed a miracle drug (Cortizone) that he becomes addicted to and this drug changes his personality to violent & cruel.
Some people see the story as simply a commentary on the danger of prescription drugs; but when I watched I saw something much deeper. Actually the film reminds me a bit of the Oscar Winner American Beauty (a film I didn’t personally care for but I won’t go into that) in the way it examines suburbia and the nuclear family with a sort of Jekyll & Hyde twist. Considering the situation in the 1950’s I found this film to be a pretty daring commentary. While watching I felt the violent & cruel Mason was more a suppressed personality and what we were seeing was his true thoughts that were stifled by his boring life style. Perhaps how Mason’s character changed was extreme but I felt the change did come from something inside him. His character certainly becomes more interesting after he takes the drug. As Criterion states on the film’s home page “That it came in the day of Father Knows Best makes it all the more shocking—and wildly entertaining.” It’s been awhile since I last saw the movie but there was one scene in particular that stood out to me that has Mason ranting about the school system. For a man that was losing his sanity what he said did not sound entirely insane to me. However I encourage you to watch the film and make up your own mind.
Personally I think James Mason deserved an Oscar nomination for his performance in this movie but he seemed to be vastly underrated as an actor. Although Mason was nominated three times in his career he never won.
The only down point of Bigger than Life for me was the ending. Things seem a little too neatly tied up and my only guess is the production code played a part in this. Nevertheless, overall it’s a fascinating film and definitely worth a watch Tuesday evening.