Bigger Than Life
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Simply put, Nicholas Ray remains the poster boy for the auteur theory - that is, the Hollywood director working within the system but regarded as little more than an adept melodramatist until the French critics of Cahiers du cinema decided he was a master. And rightly so - at least seven of Ray's films, beginning in 1949 with the still-heartbreaking They Live by Night, are masterworks, roiling, confrontational pieces of all-American unease. The films, which include In a Lonely Place (1950), On Dangerous Ground (1951) and Rebel without a Cause (1955), are tempestuous, unstable experiences, commonly battling against their own studio-system limitations and genre formulas, and it's this conflicted nature that awed the French cinephiles and makes the films hypnotic viewing today. Bigger than Life (1956) might be the most disruptive and unsettling of them all, while still being an ostensibly safe case-study adaptation of a New Yorker article, in which a real-life schoolteacher is made psychotic by his pioneering prescription to cortisone.
Forget the cortisone - Ray regretted even mentioning the drug by name, because to do so limits the film to its day and age, and limits the domestic hellfire that transpires to being merely the result of a pharmacological misjudgment. It's not. The film's not a thriller, but its Hitchcockian MacGuffin is just as incidental as the wine bottles in Notorious (1946) or Miss Froy's "secret information" in The Lady Vanishes (1938). Bigger than Life has bigger fish to fry - here is an incredibly complex portrait of middle-class American society, so sure of its own sanctity and strength, attacked from within by its own discontentment. James Mason, who also produced, plays Ed Avery, a mid-American elementary school staffer who, in Ray's hyperbolic, wide-screen world, is an unconvincing Everyman. Devoted father and lovey-dovey husband (to wife Barbara Rush), Ed tries way too hard, even lying to his unjudgmental wife about moonlighting as a cab dispatcher. (Financial anxiety permeates the film like a disorder.) The darkness comes - remember to think about everything metaphorically - when Ed begins suffering mysterious attacks and fainting spells. Eventually he is diagnosed with some rare, terminal arterial inflammation, and his only hope is a new, untested drug, which returns him to chipper health in no time. The megadose he's receiving, however, not only produces an addictive hunger to increase dosage, but also imbues Ed with a snowballing psychosis.
But it's not quite like any other cinematic slide into madness you'd care to remember. Ed becomes god-like in his own mind, practically bursting out of his own skin, and the movie's transgressions merely begin with a speech he gives, smiling and smoking, at his school's parent-teachers meeting, telling the '50s moms and dads that their kids are intellectually on par with gorillas, and that "childhood is a congenital disease and the purpose of education is to cure it." Ed's rollercoaster ride on the Megalomania Express ropes in a grandiose idea about a pedagogic TV show, rails against his family's "petty domesticity," and has him tossing all economic concerns out the window. (The only predictable bump on the path is Ed's jealousy, in regards to colleague Walter Matthau's ministrations toward a worried Rush - although, as author Jonathan Lethem convincingly suggests in a video supplement to the DVD edition of Ray's film, Matthau's character might be the subtlest depiction of a closeted gay man in mid-century America ever put on film.)
But it's when Ed focuses his Nietzschean mania on his son (the moderately convincing nine-year-old Christopher Olsen), things get much worse. Two of the film's most unforgettable set-pieces are iron maidens of domestic crisis: the single-shot, lurid horror-film-within-a-film in which Ed verbally tortures and starves his son over his homework (the composition is positively Germanic, and Ed's contorted shadow on the wall is one of the decade's qualmiest visuals), and the scorching, faux-Rockwell dinner scene, in which the boiling-over patriarch attacks his son for drinking an extra glass of milk and tongue-lashes his numb wife until there hardly seems to be a marriage left to save. Even so, that all pales beside the eventual moment when Mason's dazed and dazzling homunculus hits the Old Testament, and realizes the solution to his family problems might lie in the story of Abraham and Isaac... Is this the first authentic Dad-on-the-rampage film? If so, it bursts out of its conformist decade like a rocket, and bruises all the more for it. Shockingly, what Ray fashioned often scans like a '50s, non-horror version of The Shining (1980), and it's hard to imagine that Stanley Kubrick was ignorant of Ray's film. (Kubrick cast Mason in Lolita  six years later.) Ray leaves few stones unturned in his dissection of this meltdown, and as usual the physical spaces of the film - that staircase, that living room, that house complete with cheap travel posters and rusty kitchen water tank - are limned so thoroughly you feel intimate with the place yourself. (The staircase is practically a cast member, and its centrality became one of Hitchcock's trump cards a few years on in Psycho, 1960.) If Bigger than Life is a horror film, of sorts, the monster in question is not only the nuclear family's lynchpin gone screwy, making the entire enterprise terrifyingly unstable. (The instability created by a modest teaching salary may be the movie's primal crisis, because everything, including life and death, hinges upon it.) No, Mason's Ed is also a booming amalgamation of all kinds of horrible reactionary political ideas, from implied eugenics to Ayn Rand's objectivism to plain old reactionary xenophobia, all stewed together in a big pot of dissatisfied fearfulness and control-loss. You usually have to dig deep in horror films for a political reality behind the creature, but Ed is practically a manic radio pundit already, bellowing about "discipline!" and lamenting the world of amoral idiots he's forced to live in. But the film goes further still - when Rush's wife objects in a feverish panic that God told Abraham not to gut their son Isaac, Ed barks, scissors in hand, "God was wrong!" This is 1956? With its iconic use of '50s decor (that TV, with blaring carnival footage playing at exactly the wrong time), hair-yanking hyperbole, and resonating vision of the dark heart of postwar America, Bigger than Life is a larger influence than anyone has ever guessed. David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986), three decades later, seems almost like a sequel, and in the same sense, every movie that has dared to plumb the distraught underbelly of what everyone thought was an idyllic 1950s America owes it a debt of courage and invention. Ray was an outsider wandering around inside the machine, and that's the reason his best films, and particularly Bigger than Life, resolve themselves but cannot truly find resolution. The family is rejoined in the end, as if it were all a bad dream. But we know that Ed's disease will not abate, and more vitally, the angry soul of the shamed and frustrated American dad will not be appeased.
Producer: James Mason
Director: Nicholas Ray
Screenplay: Cyril Hume, Richard Maibaum (screenplay and story); Berton Roueché (article); Gavin Lambert, James Mason, Clifford Odets, Nicholas Ray (all uncredited)
Cinematography: Joe MacDonald
Art Direction: Jack Martin Smith, Lyle R. Wheeler
Music: David Raksin
Film Editing: Louis Loeffler
Cast: James Mason (Ed Avery), Barbara Rush (Lou Avery), Walter Matthau (Wally Gibbs), Robert Simon (Dr. Norton), Christopher Olsen (Richie Avery), Roland Winters (Dr. Ruric), Rusty Lane (Bob LaPorte), Rachel Stephens (Nurse), Kipp Hamilton (Pat Wade).
by Michael Atkinson