Director Nicholas Ray loves when things get out of hand, when tempers and sanity become so frayed that things start turning surreal. He relishes the idea of creating opportunities for his actors to let loose and chew up as much scenery as their on screen time allows.
In Rebel Without a Cause (1955) he allows James Dean to contort his face into a grieving heap of twisted flesh, and his hands into gnarled, arthritic looking claws as he screams, "You're tearing me apart!" Everything about that moment tells us that it shouldn't work; it's too big, too extreme, and too over wrought. And yet it has become a classic movie moment, and a signature line for James Dean.
In Johnny Guitar, (1954) Ray creates the first (assumed) gay western character with Joan Crawford's Vienna. The film is decidedly campy, and yet Martin Scorcese calls it "compulsive viewing". And it is. But even the idea of casting Crawford suggest that Ray has a taste for keeping things slightly off kilter.
Then in Bigger Than Life following on the heels of Rebel Without a Cause, Ray does something unexpected, he casts James Mason. Mason has a refinement and structure that seems to oppose Ray's grand sensibility for the excessive. But it's a clever thing he does here - Mason is cast as type; a good father and husband and respected teacher, who then must progress in the film to play against type - an irrational bully capable of causing great harm to his family.
The melodrama is thick in Bigger Than Life and yet it is one of Nicholas Ray's most effective and powerful dramas.
Mason is a man given an experimental drug that cures him of a potentially fatal ailment. When one pill makes him feel better he figures two pills with make him feel good, three pills will make him feel great and so on until he undergoes a Jeckyl and Hyde transformation, that changes his personality into something dangerously psychotic.
Like most of Ray's movies, there are huge moments of dramatic flare and license that test the realms of feasibility, but the effect does not ring false but rather catapults us into the kind of theatre where illusion plays a more important role than reality.
Bigger Than Life was recommended to me by a viewer. Could I remember who gave me that recommendation I would call, first to let him know that we're airing his suggestion and second to thank him for introducing me to the film.
Bigger Than Life is screened with Half Nelson on Saturday Night at the Movies January 21st at 8pm.