Bigger Than Life

Director: Nicholas Ray

U.S.A.| 1956. Colour. Anamorphic. 95 minutes.

Re-released by the British Film Institute in a new print, Bigger Than Life is one of the greatest American films of the ’50s, and a highpoint in the careers both of James Mason (who also served as producer) and of director Nicholas Ray. Indeed, even more than In a Lonely Place or Rebel Without a Cause, it may be seen as Ray’s masterpiece. Mason gives a towering performance as Ed Avery, a happily married middle-class teacher who is suddenly put on a strict regime of the ‘miracle drug’ cortisone when it’s discovered that his arteries are seriously inflamed; physically, he soon feels much better, but abuse of his medication produces nightmarish side-effects that bring to the fore all Ed’s long repressed frustrations with his life, and the scene is set for tragedy. . . . Thanks in part to Mason’s subtle but scarily authentic acting, this is one of the cinema’s most persuasive portraits of psychological turmoil, though it also succeeds magnificently as searing melodrama and subversive social critique, with Ray, his scriptwriters (who included Clifford Odets and Gavin Lambert) and cinematographer Joe MacDonald achieving a perfect balance between emotional realism and expressionist allegory. Which other Hollywood film of the era ever had the audacity to suggest that God might possibly be wrong?

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