Bigger than Life was another one that seemed to be a rather unassuming entry on the list. It had Nicholas Ray as a director, and James Mason as star and producer, but that was about it. Well, after watching it now, damn am I glad they put this one on the list. This was fantastic, a maddening portrayal of the harrowing effects of drug misuse in an era where such a topic could scarcely be touched upon in America, making this film all the more remarkable as a result. Sure, we’ve had films like this before in The Lost Weekend, and in the Book’s still-newly added The Man with the Golden Arm, but what repetition may have discounted in the film, it more than makes up for with quality filmmaking and a hell of an effective product.
Mason is Ed Avery, a schoolteacher that has recently had fits of stomach pain, which at the beginning of the film has progressed to blackouts. At the hospital, he is given a near-terminal diagnosis, save for one out: a new wonder drug treatment for his disease called cortisone. After he’s on the treatment for a few days, and feels magnitudes better because of it, it’s only a matter of time before he begins to take one pill too many, and he, along with his wife and son who are dragged along for the ride, begins to spiral down a path inexorably leading to destruction. The first thing I should mention in regards to this film is the cinematography, which was in CinemaScope color and knew how to use every ounce of it. There was a brightness to the color scheme and lighting in the beginning that was quite welcoming, only for the film to grow darker and darker as Ed began his inevitable descent, until the end of the film is all film noir shadows and darkness. Not only that, there were several shots that highly emphasized the mood of the film at that given point. For example, there was a shot a little more than two-thirds into the film where Ed is trying to school his son Richie in his own home, with Ed leaning over Richie next to a lamp, casting a looming shadow of Ed’s figure over the entire room. It was a wonderful shot, and it got me to take notice of other such great shots that the film utilized. I will say, I was a little taken back by the overly melodramatic music, until I looked up Ray and remembered he was also behind Johnny Guitar, and it suddenly made sense, adding that extra dimension of dramatic effect to the proceedings already bolstered by James Mason and his powerhouse performance.
I was left somewhat wondering why the editors of the list saw fit to add The Man with the Golden Arm when this film seemed to already cover much of the same ground. But, even with the new redundancy, I’m still for this one’s inclusion on the list, and I’m glad they didn’t replace this with the former film; this absolutely deserves to be on there. I haven’t been this bowled over by a surprise find on the list since probably The Servant, and I’m thrilled that the list still has even a scant few such surprises left for me. This is definitely one I would recommend to just about anyone; the audiences of the 1950s didn’t know what they were getting with this, but it holds up even better in today’s modern day and age.
Arbitrary Rating: 9/10