Ever since I met Claude, I’ve been hearing about Bigger than Life, directed by Nicholas Ray, the same man who directed Rebel Without a Cause. Strangely enough, Claude, and his friend Steve, always describe this movie as very comedic, when it was intended clearly to be a serious film about a serious matter. Well, finally, after nearly four years, the good folks at Criterion Collection decided to put Bigger than Life out on DVD with tons of extras. Claude nearly eja…fainted when he heard the news, and to come off what he terms “double secret probation”, I ordered it and had it delivered on the same day as it was released. Again, Claude nearly eja…fainted. So we watched it. Like the Zapruder film. And ladies and gentlemen, I’m here to tell you that this is an incredible film. It has its black comedy in spades, no doubt, but this is clearly a horror movie as well. Having been around people that turned into Mr. Hyde and I could not reach them, this movie gave me the dual effect of laughter and shivers and sick feelings in my stomach at the same time. Nicholas Ray is brilliant in his shot selection – we stopped the DVD several times to look, zoom in, and it’s visually gorgeous in its use of lighting and high shots over the staircase. James Mason, always brilliant, has never been better. And Mason’s wife in the film, played by Barbara Rush, who was not well-known to me, gave a compelling performance as well. And get this – (don’t tell Claude I told you) – it has a happy ending. Which is rare for movies that we watch.
Briefly, the story is of a schoolteacher (Mason) who develops a serious cardiovascular problem and is put on cortisone. He soon descends from kind schoolteacher, husband and father into strict, maniacal nutjob. Our favorite scene involves him reading from the Bible to his wife, specifically the story of Abraham and Issac. This occurs after he is angered by his son for some extremely minor infraction. Mason also carries some sort of dagger – I wasn’t sure if it was a knife or a letter opener – as he reads. He stops the story when Abraham puts Issac on the altar and raises the knife. His wife pleads with him, knowing that he’s contemplating harming his son, that God intervened and Issac was spared. Mason roars to her, “GOD WAS WRONG!” Claude is on the floor laughing. (atheist, you know) It is a masterful scene and Mason’s face and Rush’s horror are so compelling that you can’t possibly look away. We had to rewind it (as you can imagine) several hundred times.
It lives up to all the hype that Claude and Steve gave it. I’d watch it again and again. Hopefully it will be on Netflix or some rentable source soon, because if you have seen Rebel and liked it, this is a must-see by the same director, and easily one of the great James Mason’s finest performances as both actor and producer. Most highly recommended, six out of five stars. Actually, this one goes to eleven.
Oh, yeah, and I love you, Claude.