101 of 1001 Movies: Bigger Than Life (1956)

The 50s has darker movies, but let’s be honest that isn’t what the 50s are known for. We think of Leave it to Beaver families where the dad is the breadwinner, and the mother stays home as the housewife to raise the perfect child that is male. Bigger Than Life has that exact stereotype, but instead of playing into it it showcases a dad stressed out about the pressures of being the man who wants to be the sole provider, the woman who is concerned about letting her husband be the head of household as he descends into madness, and a son who is less than stellar at his work.

Ed Avery begins having odd symptoms that hint something is seriously wrong with his health. His wife convinces him to see a doctor, and he is prescribed a new pill to help him stay alive. Things begin to get strange and even dangerous for his family though when the pill begins changing his personality. Beginning with him quitting his extra job, and spending frivolously the things he does become crazier especially as his belief that his son will grow up to be a failure spirals out of control.

Bigger Than Life is a film that grows upon itself well. At first we see what would be the typical perfect family until we see them change into something that seems like a 50s horror nightmare.The film is credited with being an early inspiration for The Shining, and truly does seem to be one of the first psychological looks at how a person can become scary mad going from the protagonist to the antagonist as well. The director, Nicholas Ray, just maybe had a lot of problems with the 50s direction, and wanted to show how easily it could be blown apart. He would continue to show this in his most notable direction, Rebel Without a Cause.

The movie is intriguing, and does build an intense plot, but sometimes there does feel like some overreacting, but it also isn’t surprising. James Mason is Ed Avery, and he has the personality for it. His voice is very memorable, and he seems to just immerse himself in the idea that he is going crazy. Barbara Rush was his wife Lou, and while she was likable she was bland as well. She doesn’t really have much to add except that she is wife who seems to be the main one trying to keep the sanity. The little boy actor though, Christopher Olsen, as Richie, really is one that just doesn’t seem to try at all. He seems like any other child actor from that time.

The only other notable actor that comes to mind from the movie at the time is Walter Mathau as Wally. He’s the only man that the family seems to trust to let in on what is happening because Lou calls him every time Ed becomes a threat, and he rushes over. It almost seemed like they were having an affair at times. The film is restored very well though if you’re watching it in 2013. The director knew how to bring out colors, and make the whole film look great in the 50s.

Bigger Than Life does step out for the time it was filmed in. It’s a little terrifying, and takes a look at how the good guy can become the bad guy. On top of that it seems to be a punch at some themes happening in the 50s that the director maybe felt disgruntled with as far the stereotypical family life, and how men and women were conducting their dependency on one another. The biggest destroyer of this film will be the ending though. It doesn’t end on the note it should, and after watching this battle it seems like it goes off to abrupt.

Rating 7 of 10.

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