Bigger than Life (1956, Nicholas Ray)
Bigger Than Life, one of director Nicholas Ray’s most famous and highly regarded films, is a family drama whose story takes place in a small suburban town. Having grown up as a lad in something strongly resembling a stereotypical suburban neighbourhood, stories, especially dramas, that find their inspiration in suburbia have long held my interest. To conform or not to conform, that is the question. Films that put a spin on the familiar ideals of this way of life are the ones I hold the highest esteem when done well. Ray had already dabbled in similar themes with Rebel Without a Cause a year earlier, although that film’s plot concentrated on the place of youth in 50s U.S.A.. Bigger than Life tackles the larger nuclear family structure as is often described in such settings. What thrusts the drama in the film is less any character’s natural desire to be different, but a drug that releases some undesirable side effects in Ed Avery (James Mason), a family man who would do anything to help sustain his son and wife Lou (Barbara Rush), provided they subscribe to his ‘new and improved’ tactics.Ed is an affable and intelligent fellow, loved by his family and by his colleagues at work, both at the elementary school where he teaches and the taxi cab company where he puts in a few hours as a radio communicator to the drivers. The stress of keeping a stable family and juggling multiple jobs takes its toll on Ed’s body, despite his many smiles and charming demeanour on the outside. Intense pains forces him to visit the hospital, where the doctors diagnose Ed with a rare and fatal health problem, but offer him a new drug to repel the pain and, more importantly, keep him alive and ticking. There is the issue of a very strict ingestion schedule though. The first day or two are gone through untroubled, Ed quickly becomes an addict to the product, whose side effects are dangerously potent in mutating his behaviour. Almost without warning, Ed Avery’s mild mannerism is shown the door in favour of an increasingly violent persona forces onto his family his own vision of a strong family for America’s future. Rather than become an even stronger father figure for his son, Ed is soon more monster than man.
Rebel Without a Cause showed me how adept Nicholas Ray was as a visual storyteller and juggler of character development. The performances he extracted from his actors in that film were of the highest quality. With Bigger than Life, Rays trumps his efforts in that previous outing, with a tale that goes straight to the heart of the North American (although oftentimes this topic centers on Americans) life in the mid-twentieth century in how it plays on stereotypes, a master class in acting from James Mason and some of the most exquisite and effective cinematography I’ve ever had the privilege of resting my eyes on. The first element, the film’s exploration of suburban life and what peoples expectations are in that type of society including those of his own family, is a rather clever commentary on meeting, defying and exceeding those expectations. Shortly after Ed consumes the first few pills, his outlook on his family’s current status shifts, believing that his son and wife both deserve much more. He takes his family on a random visit to a woman’s clothing store that clearly caters to the upper class despite Ed’s modest earnings. At first the visit surprises and confuses Lou, who insists that they have no business being there, both literally and figuratively. Afterwards it is their son who gets to have a new bike. Neither the boy nor the mother know where this sudden audacious desire to spend has emerged from, and are slightly worried as to where this might lead. Lou knows, or thinks she knows, the family’s place in society, its ranking. Any attempts to move beyond that barrier is financially difficult and worth the effort. Ed, under the influence of the potent pharmaceutical drug, wants more, wants something bigger than the life they have.
This is but the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. In a matter of days, Ed character and opinions on matters both at home and as a teacher at school border on insolence. Suddenly, nothing is as good as it should be. The children he teaches have the intellectual capacity of monkeys, his son’s ineptness at American football (a sport Ed succeeded at during his high school years) proves increasingly frustrating to the point where he prohibits the boy from eating dinner as a punishment for not catching the ball.). During a parent-teacher meeting, Ed orates a furious indictment of the underachievers that come through his class every day. All this eventually leads to a breakdown with his wife, with whom he stays, if only to help push their son to excel in academia (again, depriving the boy of food until he resolves various mathematical problems). What we witness is a degradation of mental health that makes Ed enforce on his own son high standards in maniacal fashion. The societal norms that either naturally or artificially dictate what his family can and cannot be are nonsensical and must be done away with, even though Ed’s manner of accomplishing that go against the grain in less than positive fashion. While at first he made sure his family lived larger than the lives they had, by the story’s violent climax, it is Ed himself who has become bigger than life.
James Mason, whom I had known mostly from his performance of the villain in North by Northwest, gives one of the oddest and yet convincing performances in a movie that I have ever seen. There is a bit of irony to the fact that a Englishman is playing the protagonist in a tale that focuses so heavily on American suburban life in the 1950s. If a non-American actor plays the part well, then so be it, and such is the case here with Mason in Bigger than Life, but straight from the opening scene, It was though something was slightly off about his American accent, even if only slightly. Rather than ‘be’ an American’, I felt as though he was ‘playing an American’, which added something to the theatricality characterizing his performance in many of the later scenes when his psychosis takes on greater effect, that this was a story to be taken seriously all while reminding us very clearly that it is only a film. There is something slightly terrifying about this humble school teacher who suddenly takes many ideals and items that North Americans strive for (performance in sports, education, luxuries), and extends them to a morbid extreme, and Mason delivers a memorable, comical and frightening acting tour de force.
Not only does James Mason’s performance juggle between the reality and theatricality of the movie, but so does the cinematography and lighting. Rarely has a family drama been shot with such attention to detail towards light and shadow. Especially in the later scenes, the oppressive mood that hovers over the trio of main characters is palpable, and it seemed as if every shaft of light only further pronounced that depth of black which surround them. The same scene in which Ed holds his son captive in the living to find the solution to a math challenge has the father standing face to the light, with a terribly large shadow engulfing the wall behind him. With every move Ed makes, the shadow appears to shape shift into completely different but easily discernable characters. It’s fascinating to see played out. Everything about Ed is growing more obtrusive, including his shadow that constantly trails behind. Joseph MacDonald is the credited as the cinematographer and he deserves plenty of credit for the visual cues.
As darkness descends upon Ed and his family, so is the viewer sucked into this thrilling and intelligent drama.This is one to seek out.