Here's another chance to see Bigger Than Life, generally regarded to be Nicholas Ray's finest work, at the NFT. I saw the film on TV recently again and was mightily impressed.
Ray was one of the most interesting directors of Hollywood's Golden Age. Famously lauded for Rebel Without A Cause, he was also responsible for some of the most remarkable movies to emerge from America in the 1950s.
Ray directed the weird western Johnny Guitar and a fascinating anti-war drama in Bitter Victory, a Richard Burton vehicle now almost entirely forgotten but which deserves its growing reputation. However, Bigger Than Life is Ray's masterpiece. A searing indictment of American middle-class values, the film was trashed on release but came to the attention of film buffs in the 1960s after being championed by Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard.
In the movie James Mason plays a quiet sububan teacher who is transformed into a murderous megalomaniac following his addiction to cortisone. If the radical story wasn't recommendation enough, Ray's use of colour and his unequalled use of Cinemascope are masterful.
The film is also on at the NFT on 15 November but tonight's screening is introduced by Philip Kemp.
Chicago Reader review:
Nicholas Ray's potent 1956 CinemaScope melodrama dealt with the ill effects of cortisone on a frustrated middle-class grammar-school teacher (James Mason) at about the same time that the first wave of “wonder” drugs hit the market. But the true subject of this deeply disturbing picture is middle-class values—about money, education, culture, religion, patriarchy, and “getting ahead.” These values are thrown into bold relief by the hero's drug dependency and resulting megalomania, which leads to shocking and tragic results for his family (Barbara Rush and Robert Simon) as well as himself. Ray's use of 'Scope framing and color to delineate the hero's dreams and dissatisfactions has rarely been as purposeful. (It's hard to think of another Hollywood picture with more to say about the sheer awfulness of “normal” American family life during the 50s.) With Walter Matthau in an early noncomic role as the hero's best friend; scripted by Cyril Hume, Richard Maibum, and an uncredited Clifford Odets.
Here (and above) is the trailer.