Bigger Than Life

From the April 1999 Chicago Reader.– J.R.



Nicholas Ray’s potent 1956 CinemaScope melodrama dealt with the ill effects of cortisone on a frustrated middle-class grammar-school teacher (James Mason) at about the same time that the first wave of wonder drugs hit the market. But the true subject of this deeply disturbing picture is middle-class valuesabout money, education, culture, religion, patriarchy, and getting ahead. These values are thrown into bold relief by the hero’s drug dependency and resulting megalomania, which leads to shocking and tragic results for his family (Barbara Rush and Robert Simon) as well as himself. Ray’s use of ‘Scope framing and color to delineate the hero’s dreams and dissatisfactions has rarely been as purposeful. (It’s hard to think of another Hollywood picture with more to say about the sheer awfulness of normal American family life during the 50s.) With Walter Matthau in an early noncomic role as the hero’s best friend; scripted by Cyril Hume, Richard Maibum, and an uncredited Clifford Odets. 95 min. (JR)



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