Wednesday, January 26, 2011

My Quest To See the 1000 Greatest: Bigger Than Life (1956)

Bigger Than Life is #575 in  
My Quest to watch the 1000 Greatest Films

Screened 09/10/10 on Blu-Ray at Midtown Cinema

Ranked #569 on TSPDT

*this is one in a series of catch-up reviews in my aforementioned quest (which should explain the rather old screening date above).

Based on a 1955 New Yorker article by Berton Roueche, entitled "Ten Feet Tall", Nicholas Ray's fourteenth film as a credited director (in a mere eight years), the story of a man who becomes addicted to Cortisone and loses his mind, had the misfortune of being a box office flop upon its initial release in 1956, as well as stirring up quite a bit of controversy from the so-called, and self-appointed, and quite self-righteous, moral majority of the times.  Seen as an all-out attack on the supposed moral fiber of 1950's, Eisenhower America, and more intimately, an attack on the family itself, Bigger Than Life, was pretty much persona non grata in the small towns of middle America.

Now there is no doubt in my mind that Nick Ray, and star and uncredited co-screenwriter James Mason, meant for this to be an attack on fifties family values, and therefore should have come as no surprise that it did bring out such wrath in so many people at the time.  Also what should have come as no surprise, considering a substantially higher rate of open-mindedness amongst the group, is that the critics of Cahiers du cinema were big fans of the film (and I am sure, the attack on our majority-imposed moral fiber) and Jean-Luc Godard called the film one of the ten best American sound films ever made.  The film today is heralded as a modern masterpiece, and I must say, now that I have finally seen the damned thing, I agree with this hearalding.

This is certainly one of Ray's better films - placed snugly amongst On Dangerous Ground, They Live By Night, In A Lonely Place and Rebel Without A Cause (though Johnny Guitar still stands above them all) - as well as one of his deeper ones, psychologically speaking.  Mason's performance as the titular mental giant (at least in his own drug-induced psyche) is the best this critic has ever seen.  Showing us a psychosis that is both inhuman and monstrous, but at the same time, sadly sympathetic, Mason devours the shadow-laden screen of Ray's cinema and turns the film into his own.  This is a feat that is extremely difficult to do with Ray at the helm.  No offense to the talents of actors such as Farley Granger or Humphrey Bogart or Robert Ryan or Ida Lupino, but such a feat has only happened two other times in Ray's oeuvre - James Dean in Rebel and Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar.

Still though, Bigger Than Life is no doubt a Nicholas Ray movie, with its ominous camera and succulent colour scheme, as well as the aforementioned shadow-laden sets.  The type of movie that breathes life into the cinema and keeps the pure cinephilia of young turks like myself so deliriously enamoured with the medium for all-time.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Putting it on my list. Thanks for the great review.