Skip to main content
Tiff Logo
TIFF Bell Lightbox
is OPEN TODAY from
416.599.TIFF / 1.888.599.8433

Bigger Than Life

Directed by Nicholas Ray

A gentle schoolteacher (James Mason) is turned into a malevolent monster by the side effects of a cortisone treatment in Nicholas Ray's searing critique of 1950s conformity, which Godard chose as one of the ten best American films of the sound era.

Godard's famous assertion that "the cinema is Nicholas Ray" is more than borne out by Bigger Than Life, which Godard chose as one of the ten best American films of the sound era. James Mason gives a performance of racking accuracy as a schoolteacher whose gentle patience and liberal aspirations as father, husband and instructor suddenly turn into malevolent, even murderous psychosis as the side effects of a cortisone treatment make him a monster. Driven by delusions of grandeur, he declares that "God was wrong" and turns into a black-clad holy avenger, ready to sacrifice his own son. (The film is full of Biblical imagery of death and redemption.) Bigger Than Life has been inexhaustibly analyzed as a "text" about patriarchy and the family, institutional authority and domestic paranoia, about the pretense of social and economic stability in fifties America, but its formal beauty is also indelible: the horizontal sprawl of the Scope frame is used here to constrain, and expressionistic colour — bold flurries of primaries or patterning against monochrome backgrounds — conveys the simultaneous entrapment and entropy of the seemingly secure world of home, store and school. Whether the ending affirms the institutions the film appears to critique, or whether it reveals them as tenuous and oppressive, is just one of many points of debate. "Ray's most powerful film, and in some respects his most important" (Jonathan Rosenbaum).

Director(s): Nicholas Ray
Rating: PG
Language: English
Year: 1956
Country: USA
Runtime: 95 minutes