Because of the gentle family sitcoms of the period — Leave It to Beaver, Father Knows Best, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet — most of us think of the 1950s as a golden era for life in middle-class America. No secrets, no child abuse, no drug addiction or crime, no questioning of values. We all got along — especially fathers and sons.
But the movies had a different view (as did literature), one suggesting that underneath the pleasantness not everything was perfect. And nobody dramatized that view better than director Nicholas Ray in the riveting, shocking, disturbing, eminently memorable work of art that is 1956’s Bigger Than Life, newly released on DVD by Criterion Collection. And that’s saying something, because Ray had already made a good earlier film about unhappiness amid L.A.’s bourgeois youth — Rebel Without a Cause.
In Bigger than Life, which writers Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum adapted from a New Yorker article, the wonderful James Mason plays a suburban schoolteacher/family man who becomes addicted to the prescription wonder-drug cortisone, which he takes to combat intense pain from a life-threatening condition.
“Addicted” is too mild a word — he becomes a stark, raving psychotic who bewilders and frightens his timid wife (Barbara Rush), adoring young son (Christopher Richey) and fellow teacher (Walter Matthau).
What Ray does, through his magnificent use of full-color, widescreen Cinemascope, is show how Mason’s psychosis pushes his god-fearing, all-American, male-privileged values over the line — the film becomes a critique of American lifestyle. He harasses employees of a woman’s fashion store, torments his son for not being good enough at football and, finally, violently spouts religion like a crazed, literalminded fundamentalist.
Part Father Knows Best, part Douglas Sirk, part Night of the Hunter and all Ray, it’s one of the best American movies of the 1950s. Grade: A