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4.71

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Bigger Than Life
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by MP Bartley

"Mason goes schizo."
5 stars

Like many other great films that we can all name easily, Bigger Than Life died a death on its initial release to scathing and indignant reviews. Seen now, however, with considerable luminaries such as Scorsese championing it, it's perhaps Nicholas Ray's finest film, but also one of the scariest peeks under the suburbian life that wouldn't be surpassed until Kyle MacLachlan found a human ear in the grass.

Ed Avery (James Mason) is a content family man in suburban America, happily married, a doting father and a devoted teacher. He's also suffering from a chronic and painful illness and in an attempt to alleviate the potentially fatal consequences of it, his doctors prescribe him a course of cortisone that he will have to take for an indefinite period. Soon, Ed is feeling like a new man - he has a spring in his step, cheerily quits his second night job of a taxi driver and has some pretty revolutionary ideas on teaching that he unveils to some unwitting parents at the school. The cortisone, however, has not just had a liberating effect on Ed - it's also turned him into an arrogant, sneering bully, full of rage and perilously close to falling into a full-blown psychosis.

It's easy to think you can guess where Ray is going to take this film. Like a lot of blousy, waffly melodramas you would suspect it's going to be a dull and agonisingly worthy examination of addiction with all the scenes of weeping and wailing that most other films of its type indulges in. However, this could not be further than the truth, and it quickly becomes apparent just why it was such a controversial film at the time.

As Ed feels the initial positive effects of the medication sweeping through his body, he throws caution to the wind, and goes on a shopping spree for his wife and son. He sneers at the constricted educational system and berates children for their innocence. And, most crushingly of all, he blows away the happy marriage that he and his wife have together in a dinnertime scene clearly cribbed by Alan Ball and Sam Mendes for American Beauty.

Yes, there are no sacred cows that Ed, and therefore Ray, doesn't demolish. The consumerist, plastic lifestyle that Ed has constructed for his family is shown as a sham, as a veneer only barely masking the anguish and pain that Ed causes when he reveals some home truths to his wife. Education is mocked as a mere placebo to cure society's ills and most shockingly of all, Ed turns his drug-induced wrath on the local preacher and his sermons as he interprets the Bible in his own way. His roar of "God was WRONG!" still sounds shocking today in a 1950s film - one can only imagine how aghast audiences at the time were, to see everything sacred in their lives trampled underfoot by the protagonist of the film.

Ed is not just a victim of drug addiction, he becomes a monster and what Ray has done is transplant the classic Jekyll and Hyde story to suburban American and let it gleefully run riot. It's not hard to imagine this film percolating away in David Lynch's brain when he put together Blue Velvet.

At the heart of all this, and what really does make the film as vivid and powerful as it is, is an astonishing performance by James Mason. He has one of those rare voices that is a pleasure to listen to and watching him wrap his intonation and delivery around some of Ed's best outbursts is just an utter pleasure. His condemnation of his wife's lack of intelligence and his later outburst at the state of their marriage is the worst kind of mental bullying, but Mason makes it a hypnotic tirade of hate and loathing. His controlling behaviour over his son's educational needs becomes mental and physical abuse - best demonstrated in the scene where he hounds his son into finishing his homework, Ray shooting it like it's straight out of a Universal horror, with long, dark, foreboding shadows at the centre of it.

It's just a brilliant, brilliant performance, expertly charting the journey from happy family man to scissor-wielding psycho with ease and makes Ed one of the more sadly unappreciated cinematic villains in American cinema. The film needs a big performance at the centre of it, and Mason delivers, but never overeggs it. No matter what he does, there's always the smallest remnant of normal Ed within him, giving the film a keen emotional undercurrent as well as an overtly horrific sensibility.

It's the kind of film that is a delight to rediscover through fresh eyes - a suburban horror dreamt up between Hitchcock and Lynch, smuggled in through a soapy drama of one man's reliance on his pills.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=20966&reviewer=293
originally posted: 06/01/11 13:36:43
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User Comments

5/18/13 PAUL SHORTT COMPELLING, RADICAL DRAMA 3 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  02-Aug-1956
  DVD: 23-Mar-2010

UK
  N/A (12)

Australia
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