Bigger Than Life

Fifties classic revived for NFT's James Mason season

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Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life (1956) is less well known than his Rebel Without A Cause, although it deals with similar themes, and drives deeper into the nightmare of suburban America. Ray’s skills with colour, setting and performance are dazzling, and James Mason, who produced, has never been better as the overworked teacher who cracks up on a new drug, cortisone.

The story came from a real case which Ray persuaded 20th Century Fox to buy the rights to. But this is no documentary. It builds to a peak of horror with Mason preparing to sacrifice his little son, accompanied by mad fairground music from the TV. We’re given hints of his arrogance long before cortisone turns him into a megalomaniac. Buying his wife a dress they can’t afford, he insists upon the brightest colour available. At a PTA meeting, only an incipient fascist endorses his views on education. Bearing down upon his son’s homework, he casts the shadow of a gorilla on the wall. Ray’s indictment of middle-class America comes over more as a melodrama, but there’s no doubting his genius.

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