Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Bigger Than Life (1956) - Directed by Nicholas Ray

Nicholas Ray's towering masterpiece Bigger Than Life is a story about a man pushed to the brink and is an affront to the image of the perfect 1950's family unit that most films and television shows portrayed during that time period. Ray was always telling unique stories about unique individuals. In a Lonely Place (1950) was a film noir that looked at hidden secrets and a doomed affair between a hack writer and his sexy neighbor in an apartment complex. Rebel Without a Cause (1955) highlighted youth culture and rebellion, making James Dean into an icon. Even his brilliant Western, Johnny Guitar (1954) is atypical of the Westerns of the day, featuring campy innuendo and lurid performances. In Bigger Than Life, James Mason stars as Ed Avery, school teacher and family man. His family includes his wife Lou (Barbara Rush), who is cheerful and caring, always looking her best, and his son Richie (Christopher Olsen). After a dinner party that goes badly, Ed is taken to the hospital after a fainting spell, where he is diagnosed with a life threatening disease. He is told though, that Cortisone can be his cure, and so he begins regular doses. We quickly realize that Ed begins to have behavioral problems. He's unable to relate to his family the way he used to and begins to display erratic behavior. He also begins to take the pills more often and buys them in larger doses. The rest of the film is a wild ride following his addiction and family decline. This is a story that did not play well with audiences in 1956 and was considered a flop. Only after the Cahiers du Cinema writers (Francois Truffaut, Jacques Rivette etc.) began to hail Ray's and the film's praises did it start to gain acclaim.

I can think of no other film that exposes the facade of perfect 1950's suburban life as well as this one. One aspect that gives the film a creepy sterility and artful paranoia is the space created by the screen. CinemaScope, the lens created by 20th Century Fox in the early 1950's, created a massive widescreen. Scope ratios for these new widescreen formats at the time went up to 2.66:1. Bigger Than Life was a huge 2.55:1. As a comparison, widescreen ratios used today are usually no bigger than 2.35:1. With this expansive wide framing, Ray gives us deep shots within the Avery home, creating distance from husband to wife to son, emphasizing the chasm and disconnect that Ed creates for himself. We also sense the bigness of the home, with all the furniture laid out perfectly, every aspect of the home attended to. Their home feels devoid of genuine warmth and instead feels like they are people trapped within a geometric nightmare disguised as a home. This house becomes an ominous, manicured madhouse, filled with dysfunction as Ed's addiction escalates. It's a beautiful film and one filled with gorgeous images even though most of the film takes place indoors. Color is emphasized with mostly gray used to parallel the state of the family dynamic, occasionally punctuated by bright colors which highlight the clashes between the father, mother and son.

James Mason probably gives the performance of his career as Ed. This film was a labor of love for him as he co-wrote (un-billed) the script and produced the film as well. He is convincing as a straight-laced family man of the 1950's, but also an addict swinging out of control while trying to maintain a facade that appears normal. At times, I think the film stretches his character pretty far, but the extreme emotional swings make sense and are used effectively to highlight the hypocrisy of a suburbia where everything must be maintained in order to appear normal. Barbara Rush as his wife Lou also comes out well in this film, convincing as a wife trying to do the right thing and sweeping the issues under the rug as best she can. In fact she's the strongest figure in the film and is an interesting contrast to Mason's portrayal of father/husband who is basically lost. Rebel Without a Cause also features a pathetic father figure where Jim Backus is the helpless, doting father to James Dean's character Jim. Backus' portrayal along with Mason's both suggest a disconnect between the needs of the family and what the fathers can provide. Barbara Rush is almost more of the "father figure" in Bigger Than Life, as she's the strong one who carries the family through, holding it up under impossible circumstances. My favorite scene in the film comes during a confrontation that Ed and Lou have at the dinner table right in front of their son, starting out arguing about milk and ending with hateful proclamations as Ed's addiction and psychosis take it's toll. It's one of those staggering moments where you realize the film is going deeper than you expected.

Nicholas Ray was one of the most challenging directors working in Hollywood during the 1950's, making a string of films that have a unique voice, vision and a striking sense of truth in the moment. During the last 15 minutes of the film, there is a massive roller-coaster ride of emotion and action, capped at the end by a tagged-on ending that actually doesn't feel right. One gets the sense though that the studio had a hand in the conclusion. Bigger Than Life might be Ray's best film, where performances, direction and script all come together to make it unforgettable, shocking, and surprisingly relevant today, as it presages what would become the normal revisionist outlook on family life in the 1950's and which would continue into future decades of film where dysfunctional families became the norm.


Sam Juliano said...

Excellent, acute observations there Johnny. BIGGER THAN LIFE is a supreme example of Ray’s craft, and as many have rightly celebrated it showcases one of Mason’s most subtle performances as the bi-polar Ed in a particularly subversive turn. The cinemascope here was more than just a tapestry for gorgeous pastel colors, but rather captured a marked psychological and emotional expresiveness in this brooding and uncompromising examination of suburban life. The film is multi-layered and Ray monitors Ed’s psychosis compellingly with his refuse to have the film explode in histrionics. You are quite right to note that the film’s treatment of social issues was way ahead of its time.

Beautifully written and passionate essay, one of your very best!

I do love the film, but I would probably go with IN A LONELY PLACE and ON DANGEROUS GROUND as my two favorite Rays. But no problem with this one at all for the top spot.

Jon said...

Hey Sam,

Yes I agree with your comments about the pyschological and emotional expressiveness that the cinemscope allowed for. It's amazing how Ray was able to master the use of the frame so well with such a wide canvas. He was very careful about what he wanted us to see and how he wanted us to see it. He was in complete control here. I can see why you would choose those other Ray films and don't have a big argument against them. Thanks for your support Sam!

Alex said...

Wonderful review! Thank you for recommending this to me, after reading your post I will definitely be checking it out. So often those films exposing the unhappy suburban family life of the 1950's are made after the period, so I look forward to one that actually comes from the 50's.

Jon said...

Hey Alex! Thanks for stopping by. Yes those were my thoughts exactly and you're totally right, there are lots of ones made after the fact that do this sort of thing. It's so different to find one from that era. Hope you enjoy it!