September 12, 2010

Movie Moments: 'Bigger Than Life'

I don't usually buy a movie sight unseen. In fact, I'm pretty sure this is the very first one. Back when VHS tapes were so common, and therefore so relatively inexpensive, my mom used to buy movies left and right that she'd never even seen because to her it made more sense than going through the "trouble" of renting them. Forget that it wound up costing her much more in the long run. Much more. Not to mention the fact that most of those movies were never even liberated from their original shrink wrap! Oooh, I could go on... But what was my point to all of that? I know! It was because of my mother's whole weird, illogical movie collecting obsession that I swore to myself I'd never buy a movie I hadn't already seen and felt I had to own. Well, I stuck to that until just recently. After all, rules were made to be broken... Right?

Enter 'Bigger Than Life'. I can't really remember how it came across my radar, but once I heard about it, I just knew I would dig it. It was released in 1956, it's full of melodrama, and it was filmed in dynamic CinemaScope. Those few details alone pretty much sold it, but it was this plot summary that really drove it home for me:

"When a friendly, successful suburban teacher and father (James Mason, in one of his most indelible roles) is prescribed cortisone for a painful, possibly fatal affliction, he grows dangerously addicted to the experimental drug, resulting in his transformation into a psychotic and ultimately violent household despot. This Eisenhower-era throat-grabber, shot in expressive CinemaScope, is an excoriating take on the nuclear family. That it came in the day of 'Father Knows Best' makes it all the more shocking and wildly entertaining."

Now, how could I have possibly passed that up?? Once I knew that I wasn't getting it for my birthday (it was on my wish list), I ran out and got it for myself. And let me tell you, it did not disappoint. Well, actually, I did expect James Mason's character to be a bit more violent, but I think that's only because times are so much different now and I've become just as conditioned (or jaded) as the next person by today's high level of violence in almost every form of entertainment. Still, even with little to no physical violence, this flick gets pretty intense anyway! Most of the intense drama happens because of the psychotic mood swings of Mason's character and the resulting chaos. And what's not enthralling about watching a squeaky-clean, upstanding citizen (who's also a father and a school teacher) become an entirely drug-addicted psycho monster?? It's good, wholesome Family Film Festival fare, I tell you! No, not really...

Here we see Ed Avery (James Mason) at work,
grasping at the back of his neck in severe pain.
It's one of the first early signs we see that Ed is
going to need some serious medical attention,
and that something awful is about to start...

Here's Ed as a patient in the hospital. Looking on
quite concerned, is his wife Lou (Barbara Rush),
son Richie (Christopher Olsen), and Ed's two
attending doctors.

Now, this was a cinematic moment!
After returning home from the hospital, Ed (Mason)

expects to continue being pampered like he was by
the nurses. After about the umpteenth special
request he asks of his wife Lou (Rush), she just loses
it and she's the one who flies into a rage,
slamming the medicine chest so hard it shatters!
Needless to say, Lou's actions leave Ed a bit stunned,
and he takes a moment here to "reflect".

Did I mention mood swings?
Fortunately, the movie isn't just an intense downer.

It also has happier moments, like the one we see
above, when Ed happens to be experiencing an
upswing sort of mood. I love this scene because it's
so iconic, you know?

This is another great, happy scene. At least, it
is at first. See, Ed is treating Lou to a shopping
spree and it's all very exciting until... Lou thinks
about what it's all going to cost and that they really
can't afford it. The cinematography here is
just awesome!

I will not spoil the end for you, but I will tell
you that's a Bible and a huge pair of scissors
Ed is holding...

If you like drama and movies set in the 1950s, I'm almost positive that you'd enjoy this gem! Also, if you do decide to search it out, make sure and pick up the Criterion Collection version as it's absolutely pristine looking due to a high-definition digital transfer restoration. Plus, the DVD has all kinds of Special Edition extras!

Until next time, movie buffs, I hope all of your moments are happy ones!

~ All photos via Google Images ~


  1. I must see this movie. I can only remember James Mason in Lolita, playing the pervy Humbert Humbert. He was good in that.

    I think I also mentioned to you what one of the chimps in the "Penguins of Madagascar" animated series is named "Mason" and whoever does the voice has James Mason's accent and affectations down to a T.

  2. OMG, the scissors and the Bible! Yikes! Can I just watch that last scene? ;) I'm afraid of the painful family drama aspect of it. But some of those stills you included really do look iconic and arty. BTW I love the animal cookies masthead!

  3. Sounds cool! I'll have to check it out. I'm always on the lookout for weird flicks.


    P.S. I left you a comment on my blog.

  4. Sounds like one for my list - thanks for the heads up.


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