James Mason flips out in ‘Bigger Than Life’

Nicholas Ray’s “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955) laid down the template for teenage rebellion in the 1950s, but the rebel in Ray’s “Bigger Than Life,” released the following year and out on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection this week, is in a distinctly less romantic vein.

James Mason is the picture of small-town rectitude, a soft-hearted teacher with a modest house, wife and child, until a life-threatening illness puts him on regular doses of the recently discovered “miracle drug” cortisone. Terrified his crippling pain will return and bent double under the weight of medical bills, Mason ups the dosage and brings on a drug-induced psychosis that manifests itself in megalomania and a violently reactionary approach to his suburban surroundings.

Mason’s rebellion has a cause, but it’s a noxious one. As his madness deepens, he lashes out at the touchy-feely principles of modern education, preaching a return to “hard work, discipline and a sense of duty,” and earning the applause of at least one like-minded parent. His newfound philosophy has a distinctly Nietzschean ring that, coupled with his warning that an undisciplined American society is “committing hara-kiri” by failing to instill sufficiently rigid values in younger generation, adds a tinge of incipient fascism to his ravings. His family and his best friend, a gym teacher played by a pre-comic Walter Matthau, are horrified at the change, but to others, his ideas don’t seem so farfetched.

Before the drugs, Mason is a striving member of the middle class, covertly working afternoons as a taxi dispatcher to supplement his paltry teacher’s salary. His two-story home is the picture of modest sophistication, with framed maps advertising his worldly aspirations. But in the kitchen, a rusted-out water heater claims a vertical slice of Ray’s Cinemascope frame, a jutting reminder of the family’s precarious finances. The camera presses down on him, surveying him from above as if he were no more than a run-of-the-mill specimen. After he goes on the pills, Ray reverses course, allowing Mason to tower over the lens, his shadow looming even larger behind him. “Big shot,” Matthau observes. “He even looks taller.”

With his elegant bearing and British accent, Mason hardly fit the part of the downtrodden American everyman, but what might have been an egregious instance of miscasting was a conceptual coup on Ray’s part, ensuring that the character’s turn toward elitism would come off not as a wholesale transformation but as the amplification of emotions already present. Even before the delusions set in, Mason describes his life as dull, only with a tinge of amusement rather than the bitter contempt that will soon supplant it. Cortisone is only a catalyst. The screenplay was by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum, loosely inspired by a nonfiction New Yorker article by Berton Roueché about the perils of cortisone.

Ray’s trademark was his focus on doomed outsiders: “Rebel’s” James Dean; Farley Granger’s soft-spoken outlaw in “They Live by Night”; rodeo bum Robert Mitchum in “The Lusty Men”; Robert Ryan’s exiled detective in “On Dangerous Ground.” But there’s no romance to Mason’s departure from the norm. His bottled-up individuality comes rushing out like a toxic gas, poisoning the air and even the objects around him. There’s a sickly quality to the movie’s hues, impressively rendered in Criterion’s high-definition transfer, which serves as reminder that Ray was, along with Vincente Minnelli, one of the great American colorists of his time.

Ray was also a master of composition, one of few filmmakers who knew how to take advantage of the narrow slice of Cinemascope (which, as Fritz Lang noted in “Contempt,” was otherwise good only for “snakes and funerals”). When Mason first arrives at the taxi company, the diagonal lines of parked cabs stretch away from him in rancid yellow chevrons, underlining his insignificance in a mass-produced world. The breadth of the widescreen frame also dictates a proportional decrease in height, a cruel limitation for a man whose aspirations are coded in vertical terms. He may feel 10 feet tall, but his head is pressing against the ceiling.