Bigger Than Life

Introduction by Susan Ray (Friday night)
Screening on Film
Directed by Nicholas Ray.
With James Mason, Barbara Rush, Walter Matthau.
US, 1956, 35mm, color, 95 min.
Print source: Criterion USA

One of Ray’s best and long-overlooked films, Bigger Than Life brilliantly distorts the American dream through the feverish eyes of an overworked schoolteacher drawn to a miracle drug with dangerous side effects. James Mason brings a smoldering intensity to his portrayal of a modest man suddenly transformed by a manic, medically-induced hunger for success and for all the trappings of the “good life”– money, status, power – that seem within his grasp, although for a terrible price. A cautionary tale about overweening ambition and modern science, Bigger Than Life is both harshly satiric and tremendously sincere in its revelation of dark forces crouched in the shadows of the middle-class American nuclear family. Ray chronicles the gradual unhinging of a stable, though strained, life through a dynamic mise-en-scene that renders Mason’s suburban home progressively claustrophobic and emasculating. Sharp details punctuate the film, like with glossy travel posters of distant places Mason will never visit. The emotional intensity of Bigger Than Life is skillfully matched by Ray’s use of expressionistic lighting and garishly clashing colors to mirror Mason’s increasingly delirious mind.

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Nicholas Ray. Hollywood's Last Romantic

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