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Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Bigger Than Life (Nicholas Ray, 1956)

"Bigger Than Life: Somewhere in Suburbia"
- B. Kite (via The Criterion Collection)

Essential reading:
- Bernard Eisenschitz, Nicholas Ray: An American Journey, Faber & Faber, 1993
- Geoff Andrew, The Films of Nicholas Ray: The Poet of Nightfall, British Film Institute, 2008

Top Tier, 1956

Nicholas Ray's miracle drug horror film, one of the noteworthy uses of CinemaScope framing in 1950s movies. Ray populates the frame with an overwhelming array of architectural horizontals and verticals, and fills the spaces in with fantastic colors that blur the line between Madison Avenue and a waking nightmare. And then there are the shadows, which are as varied and meticulously placed as the props and the decor. (It's hard to imagine another film in which the simple 'Scope rectangle is as thoroughly complicated - even compromised - as it is here.)

Geoff Andrew points out that James Mason's big speech to the PTA is thought of (by the speaker) as radical material, while in reality it is utterly reactionary. (Reaction shots from spectators provide subtle but pointed commentary.) In parallel, Ed's (James Mason) post-treatment transformation, from good cheer to superhuman mania, corresponds with a personal swelling, as if to fill in with his person the infinite mass of correct corners, impenetrable walls, and garish colors. Reluctant as I may be to inscribe the pull of American values into the film's spaces, there is something to be said about Ed answering the call of social expectations in such an earnest, all-consuming way that leads to near-catastrophe and a very definite upheaval of normal life. (As if it was not apparent, Barbara Rush spends the final quarter of the film in an elegant, poinsettia-colored dress, better suited to a movie premiere, to indicate that the world has gone topsy-turvy.)

James Mason's performance is among his most perfectly-keyed, and seems to use all of him (which is a lot), and extremely well. Without his skill in grounding the character, few if any of Ed's maneuvers towards deeper, more turbulent waters would be as easy to absorb. He seems to push to underplay even the reading of the Book of Abraham that leads up to the film's best-known line. His early scenes, during which the script establishes Ed as bland, boring, but nevertheless palpably uncomfortable in his own skin, are perhaps catalyzed by Mason's Englishness, but he's so at ease with being ill at ease that we never once raise a red flag.

Another film in which a middle-class ne'er-do-well, aspiring to greater things - the greatest things - endangers himself and his family by taking those same urges well past their logical ends, and in which the conflict is mirrored in, even exacerbated by, the precise, bedeviled architecture of the film's setting: Stanley Kubrick's The Shining.
- Jaime N. Christley, Curator

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