A Movie A Day: BIGGER THAN LIFE (1956)
Childhood is a congenital disease… We’re breeding a race of moral midgets.
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with the next installment of A Movie A Day.
[For those now joining us, A Movie A Day is my attempt at filling in gaps in my film knowledge. Every day Monday-Friday I’ll be reviewing a film I haven’t seen before. Each film will be connected in some way to the film before it, be it by actor, director, writer, etc. It’s a great time to be a film explorer, with TCM’s amazing programming, Netflix Watch Instant’s large library and studios starting up boutique burn-on-demand DVD services for their more obscure vault titles. So, I’m going exploring and I hope you guys will join me on my cinematic expedition.]
Welcome to week 2 of AMAD 2013! How was your weekend? Restful? Good! Today we follow James Mason over from Friday’s Age of Consent to another film he produced, 1956’s Bigger Than Life. But first we take a little look at Buster Keaton’s The Haunted House!
Buster Keaton and ghosts… how could this one go wrong? Well, it does a little bit, sadly. No, no, it’s still super funny once it gets going, but this really is two different shorts smashed together. The first half is anarchy in the bank where Keaton works as he accidentally starts counting out money with glue on his hands and the second half is in the haunted house of the title, which is really just a cover for a group of counterfeiters to do their counterfeiting without any unwanted interruptions.
They have the house rigged so the stairs collapse into a slide and back up again, have thugs in sheets and elaborate skeleton body paint roaming the halls and all sorts of other trickery. That stuff was friggin’ awesome. The bank stuff didn’t grab me nearly as much, which really is unfortunate because that’s the first half of the short.
Maybe I’m just impatient and was so desperate to get to the haunted house stuff that I become impatient with the money-glued-to-Buster’s-hands schtick, but I really did find myself counting the minutes until the haunted house came into play.
My patience was worth it! This whole segment was everything I wanted it to be. When Keaton sees his first ghost he plays dead in about the best way possible: he flops to the floor in an over-the-top collapse that had me holding my sizeable gut I was laughing so hard. And he milks that instant floor-drop a few times before the short ended.
Also milked to its fullest was that collapsing staircase (you can see it in the last pic I posted). Every possible way of getting a joke out of it was used… from Keaton taking his spill to him then trying to avoid it as he’s chased around by ghosts, skeletons and bad actors in Shakespearean garb who fled to the house desperately trying to escape a mob of pissed off audience members.
So this one was a bit rocky, but when they finally get to the Haunted House of the title shit gets real funny real fast. Tomorrow we check out “Hard Luck,” but now let’s get to the feature of the day, shall we?
Man, oh man is this a gorgeous movie. Criterion’s Blu-Ray transfer of Bigger Than Life now sits shoulder to shoulder with Fox’s Alien and Aliens transfers and Universal’s Jaws restoration as my go-to show off discs. This is what Blu-Ray should be.
There’s a unique richness to color photography of the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, as we’ve discussed with earlier AMAD entries. I love the look of IB Tech prints of this time period and seeing it treated so well by Criterion was a joy. There is not an ugly shot in this film, which helps contemporize it. On the surface this is a fairly typical melodrama set-up: a perfectly happy ‘50s family unit is thrown asunder when the kindly patriarch falls ill with a life-threatening ailment. What should be a happy recovery thanks to a new miracle drug quickly turns dark as Mason battles with his changing body chemistry.
In many ways, this film would have made a perfect double bill with Black Narcissus since both features slowly build from a strict drama to a tense final act that plays like a horror film.
Mason is Ed Avery and he pretty much starts the movie as the nicest guy in the world. He has a loving wife (Barbara Rush) and a loving Opie-ish son (Christopher Olsen) waiting for him at home and the only stress on the family unit is that they have to live modestly. They live well, but Mason’s teacher’s salary doesn’t exactly put them in the lap of luxury.
In fact, the only dishonesty in the relationship is that Mason has a job on the side to help make ends meet. He wants his wife to be home for their son, but doesn’t want her to worry. Knowing nothing about the film other than the cast and that Criterion deemed it worthy to add to their collection, I thought the main thrust of the drama was going to be Rush knowing Mason’s lying about something and suspecting he might be having an affair with a fellow teacher.
Never assume anything with film because just about when I thought that particular drama was going to rear its head Mason collapses.
This nice man, who never had a thought for himself, has a deadly ailment that is likely to cause him great constant pain before it kills him… but there is a new drug they’re testing, a concentrated dose of the hormone cortisone, that could help him out. And help him out it does. Within months he’s back and better than ever, but things start go a little nuts when he takes more than prescribed dosage.
This nice guy starts having violent mood swings and he begins to alienate his family and friends, including Walter Matthau’s PE teacher Wally Gibbs. How’s that for another surprise? Walter Matthau playing a meathead! Never would have guessed that.
Mason is so goddamn good in this movie. You don’t forget the nice guy when the chemically imbalanced guy shows up, so you feel for him even when he’s being a complete dick to everyone who cares for him, but you’re also afraid to see how far he’ll go.
And he goes pretty damn far, let me tell you. It starts fun at first, when he’s telling the PTA about how the school system is breeding a race of mental midgets… it just feels like his medication is taking away his bullshit filter and he’s letting it all hang out, but then the paranoia and cruelty starts to creep in and that leads us to a finale that is incredibly dark and intense.
The ending itself is a bit of a cop-out in my opinion, but I don’t want to get too specific because I really want you good folks to seek this one out and how much of a monster would I be to talk in-depth about the last 90 seconds of the movie? Ignoring that period at the end of the film, Bigger Than Life is a spectacular achievement in performance, cinematography, pacing and tension.
Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without A Cause) is a fine director and does fine work here, especially when it comes to establishing a world, letting us live in it and get comfortable before he slowly starts turning the screws, racking up the tension until emotions are at a boiling point.
When talking about last Friday’s Age of Consent, I said I felt like Mason producing it made it feel a bit like a vanity project, a way for a past-middle age man to spend a lot of time with a hot young thing. With Bigger Than Life you could easily view it in a similar fashion because Ed Avery is an actor’s dream character, but even though I knew Mason produced it and could recognize that the lead is a show off character for an actor I never once thought he was in it for vanity. Because it was so well executed, what could have been vanity comes across as passion. Mason had something he wanted to say with this film, which is another reason why I think the very, very end is a bit of a cop out because it undermines the point of the picture, in my opinion.
Final Thoughts: Any film fan should seek this out. I know it being Criterion has already put this film on the radar of a lot of you hardcore folks, but if for whatever reason you haven’t heard of this one yet or were on the fence about giving it a spin I can say it earns Vespe’s seal of approval. Mesmerizing performances, photography, direction and pacing with a great, dark tone that is atypical of its type and decades ahead of its time.
Upcoming A Movie A Day Titles:
THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE (1969)
TUNES OF GLORY (1960)
HITLER: THE LAST 10 DAYS (1973)
Tomorrow we follow Walter Matthau over to one of the bigger gaps in my early film knowledge, the romantic suspense flick Charade starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn! See you then!
Previous A Movie A Day (2013) Titles:
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