Bigger Than Life (1956)

Bigger Than Life (1956), directed by Nicholas Ray.

A distinguished schoolteacher has some secrets. He is ill and hiding it from everyone. He has a part time job and conceals it from his wife. Some other oddities: the walls of their house are covered with maps and travel posters but they do not seem to go anywhere; he says "we are dull people." He has a modest job but considerable pride of intellect.

When he collapses the doctors say he will die without a new experimental drug (cortisone!) He makes a quick recovery and becomes manic, either way up or way down. He speaks his mind a bit too freely to parents at school and makes grandiose plans. He is abusing the prescription and becomes mentally unbalanced. During this phase we wonder if his illness and medication aren't just an excuse, a way to drop his inhibitions and let his real self run riot.

We hope that's not true when he turns murderously psychotic and the story becomes more of a thriller or horror picture. But: there is a happy ending, in fact it's a bit syrupy.

James Mason (who produced the film and contributed to the script) is absolutely chilling. A psycho-dad or psycho-husband is always a scary prospect, but add his intellect and penetrating demeanor and we have entered nightmare country. His breakdown proceeds slowly and goes on for a long time but the tension never flags.

I didn't have time to listen to the commentary track. It seemed to be sociological: shallow suburbia, hypocritical nuclear family, cold war, conformism, etc. Well, maybe. I've been listening to that lecture all my life and wonder if it isn't time to give it a rest.

I'm always pleased to see Barbara Rush and will have to watch It Came from Outer Space (1953) again soon. Also with young Walter Matthau.

Gorgeous 1950s cinematography. The last time I saw even bits of this movie it was on a small boxy black and white TV; I didn't even know it was in color and Cinemascope. Moments like this make me feel like I have been transported into the future.

I spotted an effect which I presume is already known to fans. Several scenes have a medicine cabinet; when the mirror swings you get a glimpse of other people in the background. Whether this is the crew or director or a spectral observer I don't know; I'm sure it is intentional. Very creepy. You need frame-by-frame to see the figures clearly.

Criterion Blu-ray.