Bigger Than Life

Movie Review by Stephen Doyle

Starring: James Mason, Barbara Rush, Christopher Olsen, Walter Matthau
Director: Nicholas Ray

BIGGER THAN LIFE is the 1956 film which saw the coming together of two very diverse talents. Firstly, English matinee idol and accomplished character actor James Mason and secondly, American director Nicholas Ray, who made REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE a year before this film, and who ended up becoming highly revered by European critics and filmmakers.

The film is entertaining in a macabre way, but the stark subject matter, which focuses on a father’s downward spiral into despair, leaves little to enjoy. The father is Ed Avery, played by Mason, who does brilliantly with a rather crass script. He is put on a strict course of the drug cortisone when doctors discover his arteries are inflamed. Cortisone is the only known cure to the potentially fatal ailment, but the drug has disastrous side-effects on Ed’s mental health. He changes from a mild-mannered middle-aged teacher into a bullying father and a cruel husband, whose descent into extreme mental imbalance culminates when he makes an attempt on his own son’s life.

This should all be very gripping and rousing stuff, but the film, in my case at least, inspired much unintended laughter. The problem is that this film has not dated very well. BIGGER THAN LIFE is one of those kitsch suburban melodramas made in the 1950’s that was recently paid homage to in Todd Haynes’ FAR FROM HEAVEN. The style of movies like BIGGER THAN LIFE has fallen out of favour with modern tastes, and it isn’t hard to see why – these films are characterised by soap opera style dialogue, crude colour schemes, over blown orchestral scores, cliched acting and so on. In short everything is garish and over the top, and thus far from realistic.

Yet BIGGER THAN LIFE does have its occasional charms. Mostly, it is good to see Mason back on the big screen again. Here he gives a captivating performance, if not his most convincing. Watching him go off the rails as he turns into a barmy, homicidal cross between Hamlet and Colonel Kurtz is a joy to watch, and even more of a joy to listen to (Mason has one of the finest voices in cinema).

Many critics rave about this movie, saying it marks the zenith of the careers of both Mason and Ray, but I don’t see it. I have seen this movie once before, several years ago. I did not really like it then, and I can’t say it means much to me now.

2 out of 6 stars

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