Bigger Than Life
Where: The Belcourt
When: Nov. 26-27
“You want to be a man, don’t you?” snaps schoolteacher James Mason to his football-challenged little boy; the question lies at the heart of the scalding melodramas director Nicholas Ray made in the 1950s with actors who embodied the era’s macho ideal — Humphrey Bogart (In a Lonely Place), Robert Mitchum (The Lusty Men), John Wayne (Flying Leathernecks), Robert Ryan (On Dangerous Ground). This 1956 problem drama may be the most devastating of the bunch: Its then-controversial topic is experimental cortisone treatment, but the true subject is the stigma of not being husband, daddy or breadwinner enough to meet the imposed standards of success.
Facing a deadly ailment, Mason (whose odd casting as a suburbanite only heightens his fish-out-of-water quality) undergoes radical cortisone therapy. It brings relief but turns him into a grotesque caricature of can-do ’50s authoritarianism — a demagogue whose arrogance edges ever closer to fascism, while his wife (Barbara Rush) and adoring son can only look on in terror. With Ray using CinemaScope’s enormity for distorting effect, shooting the star from low angles that inflate his overconfidence, the movie builds to a berserk ending as Mason starts to consider himself a modern-day Abraham who must sacrifice his loved ones to purify them. Cautioned by his wife that God stayed Abraham’s hand, Mason delivers the movie’s chilling signature line: “God was wrong!” Co-starring a young Walter Matthau, the movie screens as part of The Belcourt’s ongoing Ray retrospective.