After the insipidly directed, if well acted, Revolutionary Road it was great to have an opportunity to see this classic ’50s melodrama at the Bradford Film Festival (celebrating James Mason’s centenery). Everything that was wrong with Revolutionary Road is right with this film focusing on Ed Avery’s increasing megalomania as he gets addicted to cortisone (a ’50s ‘miracle drug’). As he turns into a monster, espousing right wing elitist views, the mise en scene mirrors his psychological state – see above. After a sedate start, the mise en scene gets increasingly hysterical, culminating in a fight of, for ’50s Hollywood, astonishing brutality between Avery, and his best friend, on the stairs. Stairs are a significant space in melodrama as they are space of ‘transitions’ as well as being potentially precarious.
As feminists critics noted before anyone else, in the 1970s, ’50s Hollywood melodrama, utilising the space of widescreen frame and the colour available to ‘A’ pictures, offered a critique of the capitalist American dream: Ed has to do two jobs to ‘keep up with the Joneses’; the ‘domestic bliss’ of the home is based upon repressing women and patriarchal domination.
Directed by Nicholas Ray (his first film after the celebrated Rebel Without a Cause, 1955) Bigger Than Life also benefits from Huddersfield-lad James Mason’s performance with excellent support from Barbara Rush as his wife. If any further evidence was needed that films need to be seen in the cinema to be properly appreciated then the shattered handrail on the stairs, which violently breaks up the composition in the middle of the frame, will do. I’d seen the film on television twice before but it was only now that this had the overwhelming effect it was obviously intended to have.