By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
Directed by Ray from a screenplay credited to Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum (though Clifford Odets and Gavin Lambert both made significant uncredited contributions), the film takes its inspiration from a fact-based New Yorker article about a Queens schoolteacher driven to the brink by a negative reaction to the “miracle drug” cortisone. But Ray transposes the setting from New York to the suburbs of Anytown, USA, which is merely the first indication that we’re in for something more than a mere medical mystery. Mason, who also produced the film, stars as Ed Avery, a well-liked teacher, husband and father, who succumbs to sudden, crippling pains and is diagnosed with a rare and potentially fatal inflammation of the arteries. The only treatment: cortisone. Yet, even before he falls ill, evidence suggests that Avery is suffering from a far more lethal affliction of the spirit. He lies to his prim and proper wife (Barbara Rush) to conceal his extra-income job as a taxi dispatcher — whatever would the neighbors think? — and dares to voice the realization that beats silently at the heart of many a smiling suburbanite: “We’re dull!”
Well, the dullness soon subsides, as Avery starts popping prescription hormones like breath mints and his id runs roughshod over suburban America’s neatly manicured lawn. (The recurring use of mirrors emphasizes the suggestion that we have passed through the looking glass.) Riding a euphoric high, Avery feels unstoppable, showering his family with expensive presents, berating the assembly at a PTA meeting for “breeding a race of moral midgets,” and announcing plans to write a “life work” manuscript that will teach people how to make themselves over in his shining image.
Ray begins Bigger Than Life as a series of immaculate hedgerows, picket fences and modern kitchen appliances, only to gradually lower the camera angles and lengthen the shadows, as the film transforms into a dystopian, surrealist expanse — an obvious precursor to David Lynch’s maggot-infested Lumberton, North Carolina; Father Knows Best reconfigured as Greek tragedy. An outsider by temperament and himself no stranger to addiction, Ray aligns his own sympathies with Avery, even as the character moves from delusional to homicidal. Or is this apparent madman simply telling an uncomfortable brand of truth? “God was wrong!” Mason bellows as the movie arrives at its still-terrifying climax — an attempted “correction” of Abraham’s aborted fatherly sacrifice little dulled by the movie’s Production Code–imposed “happy” ending.
Mason was nominated three times for an Oscar — he never won, providing more evidence of the Academy’s terminal folly. But then, Mason wasn’t the type to pander for awards: He was too busy working. Even at the height of his fame, he kept up a pace that would make Michael Caine look like a slacker. So, Mason’s résumé is dotted with low-budget Italian action movies, TV miniseries (to a generation, he may be best known as the sinister antiques dealer Straker in Salem’s Lot) and a guest appearance on Sesame Street. Yet even in his lesser works, Mason himself is rarely less than a joy to watch, still classing up the joint when he’s only there to take the money and run. And then there are forgotten, uncivilized masterpieces like 5 Fingers and Bigger Than Life — and that voice, echoing out from the darkened screen.
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