Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life feels closer to a suburban monster movie than to any conventional melodrama from the period. Even James Mason, who plays the grade-school teacher secretly moonlighting as a cabbie, undergoes stark physical, psychological and emotional changes that seem an uncanny parallel to the sci-fi mutation films that proliferated during the era. But instead of Godzilla rising from the ashes of nuclear destruction, Ray gives us Mason, your prototypical 1950s white-collar dad, who is collapsing under the strains of meeting the status quo. He works all day but can’t pay the bills, his home life is staid, and not only does he have to hide his after-school gig as a cabbie by inventing fake board meetings, but now he has these mysterious pains that are only getting worse. Finally, in front of his wife, son, and brother-in-law, he collapses — the apex of emasculation. The doctor’s answer? An experimental new drug called “cortisone” that will heal not only the physical pain, but also his wounded ego.
And so Mason invests all of his dreams of being the perfect dad, husband, worker, neighbor, and all around Joe Citizen, into this one pill. With social pressures this great, it’s no wonder that he becomes dependent on the drug, increasing his dosage until he is an out-and-out addict on the brink of forever losing his sanity, thus completing his mutation from man to monster. Nicholas Ray’s intoxicatingly evocative use of CinemaScope’s wide screen gives living rooms and kitchens the epic expanse of a metropolis, which Mason lays waste to the way that Godzilla decimated buildings. The film’s finale, in which Mason-as-monster attempts to destroy the last remaining sanctity of middle-class virtue — the family — is among the most emotionally charged and affecting scenes in Ray’s hyper-emotional filmography.
At Film Forum today and tomorrow, kicking off their essential Nick Ray retrospective, discussed in the new issue of the L by Nicolas Rapold. This review was originally published this January, for Film Forum’s weeklong revival of the movie; Mark Asch also discusses the “the scariest, funniest ever episode of Father Knows Best here.