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Bigger Than Life (DVD Review)

22 Mar, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Street 3/23/10
$39.95 DVD or Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars James Mason, Barbara Rush, Walter Matthau.

The era’s slew of horror films and creature features never scared me much as a child growing up in the 1950s, though if I’d seen Robert Mitchum as the psychotic rural-Gothic stepdad in The Night of the Hunter upon its original release, it likely would have put me through the ceiling.

Yet one movie did creep me out significantly at the time — and for years later, when reflecting. It involved a father as well — but one in the normal everyday ’50s suburbs, as if an episode of “Leave It to Beaver” (which was actually a year away from premiering) had been turned on its head. In fact, look at Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life (1956) today, and one school scene even features Jerry Mathers (the Beav himself) in a bit part.

Bigger than life. This is the newly delusional mindset of a grade-school teacher (James Mason) who, in an attempt to equalize a potentially fatal affliction, is prescribed cortisone. Termed here as a “miracle drug,” it’s a hormone he then proceeds to abuse — launching the first movie I know to deal with a prescription drug nightmare in the suburbs. Though even before the first pill is swallowed, it’s been a life fraught with stress.

To make ends meet, Mason conceals his after-school moonlighting as a cab dispatcher from his suspicious wife (Barbara Rush). But as one of the typically savvy Criterion extras indicates, the household he’s trying to preserve is a carriage always close to becoming a pumpkin. A rusting-out water heater defaces the family kitchen, and the front yard (on a busy street) looks as if it would take three minutes to mow (with a weed-whacker). A game of football catch in the backyard shows a lot of grassy undergrowth, and on the soundtrack, we hear a nearby train. This kind of detail doesn’t just get into movies by itself.

Mason reacts wretchedly to the drug — intimidating his young son (Christopher Olsen), going on spending sprees even his dual salaries can’t support, and bellowing out so many insults at the school’s parents’ night that his gym teacher colleague (Walter Matthau in some early-career offbeat casting) wants to crawl in a hole. With us.

Ray was working with a smart script by Cyril Hume (who penned Forbidden Planet the same year) and Richard Maibaum (with a lot of James Bond movies in his future, including series launcher Dr. No). But his trademark blocking and framing is at the peak of its CinemaScope powers from the opening school-door shot — equal to what he’d done visually with Rebel Without a Cause just one year earlier. Someone once said that if you could find someone who could photograph exteriors like (El Cid’s) Anthony Mann and interiors like Ray, you’d have the perfect filmmaker. Amen.

If you don’t count his goof of a ghost cameo in the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Forever Darling, this was the first movie Mason made after his still imposing 1-2 punch from late 1954: as decaying actor Norman Maine in the definitive version of A Star Is Born and Captain Nemo in Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. He produced as well, which indicates a project close to his heart, and responded with one of his most memorable performances. Rush is excellent, too. When I was younger, I used to find her a little rigid and cold — but now I think (see also 1960’s Strangers When We Meet), she pretty well nailed the Eisenhower-into-Kennedy suburban frustration bit all the way: a kind of (“Mad Men’s”) Betty Draper before her time. Faced with an emotional whirlwind, she can only be moist-eyed and edgy – with a cause.

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