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Martin Scorsese dedicated a special chapter in his documentary A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies to angst-driven Hollywood films from the 1950s. He focused on artistically subversive exotica like Kiss Me Deadly that suggested -- and sometimes screamed -- that the surface calm of American culture covered a mire of dark anxieties. Scorsese gave special attention to Nicholas Ray's 1956 domestic drama Bigger than Life, which is now considered a filmic protest against the decade's popular illusions of peace and prosperity.
Bigger than Life is ostensibly a drama about the dangers of new post-war Wonder Drugs. Its insights on the American family are more focused than those offered in the serious "organization man" movies Executive Suite and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. This may also be Nicholas Ray's best film, as his highly expressive direction adds layers of meaning to every scene without imposing an air of pretension. Bigger than Life is the story of a domestic crisis that reveals a greater nightmare hidden within.
Schoolteacher Ed Avery (James Mason, who also produced) is too proud to tell his adoring wife Lou (Barbara Rush) that he secretly moonlights as a taxi dispatcher to make ends meet. While Lou worries that her husband is carrying on an affair, Ed is struck by ever-stronger pain attacks. When he finally collapses the doctors discover a potentially fatal condition in his circulatory system. However, the new and relatively untried drug Cortisone has just become available. Ed's pains cease. Elated by his deliverance through modern medicine, Ed ignores his radical mood swings and tries to counteract crippling attacks of depression by upping his dose of Cortisone. His behavior becomes even more erratic. He lectures school parents and refers to their children as "mental morons". Ed whips up sudden brainstorms about brilliant writing ideas, and then drops them just as quickly. He accuses his wife of adultery with Wally Gibbs, the school P.E. teacher and his best friend (Walter Matthau). Posing as a doctor to obtain more pills, Ed goes off the deep end, persecuting his loving son Richie (Christopher Olsen) and showing signs of even more profound derangement ... including threatening violence to his family.
Bigger than Life is a staggering drama provided one accepts the domestic forces at play around Ed Avery's newfound megalomania. Although dutiful wife Lou tolerates far too much deviant behavior, the economic and social pressure for the recovery of her husband makes her passivity more than credible: if Ed's mental instability were to become known, his teaching career would be over and the family could self-destruct. The accepted marriage contract at this time demanded that the wife quietly support her man no matter what. Actress Barbara Rush's acting expresses this conflict very well. Her Lou has difficulty believing that her harmonious family could be so violently shattered, and her response is to have faith and keep hoping for the best.
The doctors in this drama are not the infallible gods of normal Hollywood movies. Standing about looking grim and indecisive, they fail to monitor the psychological forces unleashed by Cortisone. Ed's prognosis seems as doubtful as that of Robert Scott Carey in the next year's The Incredible Shrinking Man. The parallels are obvious, even across genre lines -- both men are involuntary pioneers in uncharted medical territory. Modern medicine is Science Fiction.
Nicholas Ray's handling of actors is second to none. After the overly sensitive Rebel without a Cause the character mannerisms in Bigger than Life are much more finely tuned. James Mason's excellent, nuanced performance carries the main theme. Ed Avery remains sympathetic even when inflicting psychological torture on his child, or telling his wife to her face that she means nothing to him now, that their marriage is finished.
The more the story pushes into extreme behavior, the more knowing it seems about American madness. Ed goes overboard with his self-adjudged paternal responsibilities, forcing his son to play football beyond his abilities and keeping him up until all hours struggling with advanced math problems. He then veers into religious mania, eventually deciding that his family's failure in the eyes of God demands an Old Testament sacrifice. Only when Ed turns to murder and suicide does Lou fully realize the horror of what has happened. When she protests that her husband is misinterpreting an Old Testament pronouncement, Ed shouts back, "God WAS WRONG!" It may be the most shocking dialogue line in a 50s Hollywood movie.
Bigger than Life's dynamic visuals express the madman unleashed from within Ed Avery. The camera pushes in on his beaming face as he holds court before a group of school parents, several of whom endorse his reactionary ideas about "getting back to moral fundamentals". The former nice guy preens before his bathroom mirror, ordering his wife about like a servant; Ray sees to it that the mirror shatters, precipitating a mood swing as dramatic as one from a werewolf movie. Plunging into abject despair, Ed reaches for the only thing that seems to sustain him -- Cortisone. He undertakes elaborate deceptions to keep the pills coming. Ed is the soul of the American consumer miracle, consuming madness.
Nicholas Ray experts point out the director's precise and telling visual details, such as the close shot of Ed's hand grasping his doorbell as he suffers a pain attack. Color symbolism also figures highly in critical discussions, as the film's lighting grows darker and drab tones are slowly replaced by brighter hues, with flaming oranges and reds begging to be singled out for significance. Lou's fancy dress is almost as emblematic as the red gowns in Vincente Minnelli films, and little Richie's red windbreaker immediately fixes him as a James Dean placeholder, junior grade. But Ray's larger achievement is the sublimation of his personal themes to this story about a middle class everyman. The writers of Bigger than Life present Ed Avery as a sort of 1950s "super dad". When Ed becomes unhinged, he plays out the negative manias of the decade. Ed Avery wants his son to be a football star. He demands an unrealistic level of domestic perfection from his wife, who one moment is a trophy for his pride, and the next completely unworthy of him. And when Ed really flips out, he confuses his personal desires with the authority of God. Screenwriter Cyril Hume was one of the contributors to the same year's futuristic Forbidden Planet, in which a scientist receives an alien "Brain Boost" and becomes a dangerous psychotic. That exact theme is mirrored in the title Bigger than Life.
Nicholas Ray saves his biggest punch for the epilogue, which counters the screenplay's official message with an almost completely opposite subversive one. Technically, his film concludes as would a normal Hollywood production given a pass by studio brass and the Production Code. An irate Lou lectures the doctors about Faith, restoring the status quo vis-á-vis Church themes. The doctors in turn defend their use of the obviously risky drug Cortisone, asserting that the medical establishment wasn't negligent because Ed took an overdose. We're more likely to think that the doctors recklessly handed Ed Avery a loaded gun. Neither of these "balancing" statements settles the disturbing conflicts raised by the story, and neither does the hyper-complacent final image of the Avery family sharing a group hug, with Ed now apparently back to normal. I can see a 1956 audience recoiling a bit from this scene, as the happy reconciliation is simply too abrupt, too easy, especially for Lou Avery. Forget the pills and forget the marriage license: a cautious mother would just as likely find it impossible to trust a man who threatened her son with a pair of scissors. Ray uses the film's unconvincing happy ending to raise greater doubts.
The most frightening realization amplifies Bigger than Life's charge of real-life psychological horror. How can Lou be certain that it was Cortisone that made Ed into a monster? What if the drug instead liberated his real personality? Ed definitely feels he's too good for his job, so it isn't much of a stretch that he resents his family's perceived mediocrity ... the first thing he tells Lou is that he's decided that they're "dull people". The implied sub-message is that family conventions, married love and perhaps all civilized behavior are artificial ideas imposed by society. Bigger than Life suggests that we all have ugly Forbidden Planet-like "Id monsters" within us, itching to get out and wreak havoc. America is a lot less secure than it looks.
Criterion granted the wishes of film aficionados everywhere when they announced DVD and Blu-ray editions of Bigger than Life. Licensed from 20th-Fox, the CinemaScope production looks terrific, with accurate colors.
The extras assembled by disc producer Curtis Tsui allow a number of learned critics and Nicholas Ray associates to comment on the director's mostly unheralded masterpiece. Author Geoff Andrew provides a general discussion on his full-length commentary, while author Jonathan Lethem plays show 'n' tell with a personalized video appreciation of the film. Ray himself is interviewed on a half-hour television show from 1977, and his widow Susan Ray sits for a new interview as well. The insert booklet contains an insightful short essay by B. Kite. All of these spokespeople reinforce the director's image as a master of anxiety and uncertainty. Bigger than Life is the tale of an ordinary man transformed by drugs into a classic Ray "outsider".
For viewers mindful of the vintage TV family dramas that embodied the image of fifties' American normalcy, Bigger than Life has an almost miraculous moment: one of the tots Ed Avery encounters in an art class is little Jerry Mathers, soon to become famous as TV's Leave it to Beaver. Nicholas Ray's excellent child actor Christopher Olsen isn't as well known, but he can boast an unbeatable résumé. He has prominent roles, often facing murderous adults, in Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much, Budd Boetticher's The Tall T and Douglas Sirk's the Tarnished Angels.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Bigger than Life Blu-ray rates:
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