In adapting Berton Roueché's New Yorker essay "Ten Feet Tall," Nicholas Ray cannily renamed the story Bigger Than Life. Both stories recount the tragedy of a diseased man whose treatment leads him to psychotic delusions of grandeur, but Ray's 1956 film doesn't merely reflect the protagonist's feeling that he's become a colossus; it's also a skillful use of melodrama (a bigger-than-life narrative form) shot in the ultra-wide Cinemascope format. And the story is about more than medical and domestic anxieties, markers of life; it's about the spectre of what lies outside the boundary of life: death and, perhaps, God. Not just any '50s filmmaker could get away with the climactic line of dialogue "God was wrong," a signifier that the film's tragic hero has gone beyond pity and fear to a perhaps irredeemable state.
Coming directly off of his smash hit Rebel Without a Cause, Ray proved again to be a master of screen tension. Bigger Than Life didn't score at the box office, and has languished in relative obscurity, though it has long been praised by cinephiles (Ray was especially popular among the Cahiers du Cinema crowd, Truffaut selecting Bigger Than Life as the best film of the year). Right from the start, Bigger Than Life is arresting: the credit sequence features a push-in to a school as happy kids pour out in a display of freedom, innocence, euphoria, and general youthful vitality—qualities our protagonist craves. He (and we) will likewise be schooled and released, like it or not, into a world that’s crueler than we like to think.
Our tragic hero is James Mason as Ed Avery, a married-with-children school teacher living in the heart of suburbia. “Let’s face it," he tells his wife Lou (Barbara Rush). "We’re dull.” But just barely beneath the surface of middle-class domesticity lurk compounding crises. Wishing to keep his family in clover, Ed supplements his take-home pay by moonlighting as a cab dispatcher (in what sounds like an in-joke, given British-born Mason's conspicuously velvety accent, the supposedly All-American Ed is nicknamed "Voice" by the cabbies). The stress of the long hours and his duplicity contribute to a physical condition Ed has been fruitlessly trying to ignore. One evening, both secrets bubble to the surface, sending Ed to the hospital for a diagnosis and a course of treatment.
Along with a cortisone prescription, the Averys get a warning of potential side effects, particularly if Ed should waver from his scheduled intake. Of course, that's exactly what he does: at first, the "miracle drug" makes Ed an energetic, apparent picture of health, but when his mood begins to swing, fueling disconcerting rants and unreasonable demands, Ed overdoses rather than incurring a further medical bill with a follow-up visit to his doctor. Ed's erratic moods force Lou and the couple's young son Richie (Christopher Olsen of The Man Who Knew Too Much) to walk on eggshells and look to Ed's best friend and co-worker Wally Gibbs (Walter Matthau) for aid; especially in the context of the pre-feminist '50s, Lou is horrifyingly helpless and understandably neurotic in her confused impulses. It doesn't take long for Ed to advance from emotional abuse to full blown paranoia and physical threats.
The screenplay credited to Cyril Hume & Richard Maibaum (later the longtime screenwriter for James Bond) got uncredited polishes from playwright Clifford Odets and Gavin Lambert, with producer Mason defending the story's increasingly dark material. No one shaped the material more intensely than Ray, who thoroughly coded the film with the deepest of bourgeois insecurities. Ed has decorated his home with travel posters to exotic destinations he fears he'll never see, and he frets about recent house guests "the Joneses," with whom he and Lou must implicitly keep up. Ed's dim apology to Lou "Sometimes we say more than we mean" helps to frame the story as a study in male repression unleashed.
The post-cortisone Ed is a raging id, whose rants about the inadequacy of suburban social values bring to the surface his subconscious, shockingly superior appraisal of himself relative to his peers and family. When a nakedly arrogant Ed tells a classroom-full of parents, "We're breeding a race of moral midgets," most are aghast but at least one recommends him for promotion, reminding us Ed is not alone in putting children on notice as vessels of parental expectations. (At times resembling Ed's remark, the students in the film provide some of the film's select moments of humor.)
The terrifying new energy provided by cortisone needn't be taken literally, though the film is ostensibly a medical cautionary tale. Ed's manic tantrums could be the stuff of any American household held hostage by a domineering male seeking power and control to compensate for his socio-economic impotency. Other drugs, drink, stress and mental illness (like the undiagnosed PTSD of "the greatest generation") could add fuel to the fire just as well as cortisone; in any event, Bigger Than Life remains an incisive portrait of a family living in fear.
The sort-of picture-perfection of the suburban home (pay no attention to that exposed boiler in the kitchen) is a tenuous cover for the unpredictability of life, the short distance between the American Dream and the American nightmare. How little it takes to make it all go away, Ray seems to say (and hope we'll remember when the ending rolls around). A medical crisis is but one possible stumbling block: a broken relationship, a lost job, or even the proverbial "getting hit by a bus" can just as easily do the trick, and any one can potentially cause the others.
In the concentrated drama of its ninety-five minutes, Bigger Than Life keeps us off center by battering us between Ray's Actors Studio-style psychological realism and his expressionistic flourishes. Richie's red windbreaker (suggesting he's a James Dean to be) and Ray's keen sense of the geography of the suburban home (including the slashing angle of a staircase, ever the site of confrontation) recall Rebel and contribute to the film's visual impact. Not only daring as a producer, Mason gives one of his most potent performances, and he's well-supported by Rush, Olsen, and Matthau. A harrowing, unflinching staredown of the fears of mortality and mediocrity, Bigger Than Life captures the Shadow of the American male, perched precariously on a psychological abyss.
Criterion's simultaneous Blu-ray/DVD release of Bigger Than Life qualifies as a rescue. Long hard to find and unforgivingly cropped in previous home-video offerings, this Cinemascope classic from Nicholas Ray gets a downright glorious hi-def transfer from Criterion. The image remains film-like, but noticeably tighter in sharpness and detail than in its lesser presentations. Color is vibrant and true (Richie's red jacket blazes by contrast to the subtler tones of the town and the city), and contrast and black levels are surprisingly solid. Best of all, the Cinemascope frame is fully intact. Criterion presents the original audio in a clear and clean linear PCM 1.0 track.
Criterion's bonus features are, as always, excellent. The commentary by The Films of Nicholas Ray author Geoff Andrew is an academic but fully engaging track. Andrew clearly knows his subject inside and out, faultlessly and fluently providing screen-specific observations on themes and cinematic technique, as well as relevant biographical information.
The 1977 TV interview "Profile of Nicholas Ray" (28:48, HD) finds critic Cliff Jahr in a solid half-hour of chat with Ray. The conversation never turns directly to Bigger Than Life (the focus stays mostly on Rebel Without a Cause), but the interview gives a strong sense of Ray's filmmaking approach, including his use of rehearsals and improvisation, and his artistic sensibility.
"Suburban Subversion: Jonathan Lethem on Bigger Than Life" (27:12, HD) is a brand-new talking-head sit-down with Lethem, an award-winning novelist (Chronic City) who counts Bigger Than Life among his favorite films. Lethem gives his own take on the film's themes and why he finds the film ongoingly appealing.
Also newly filmed by Criterion, "Creating from Chaos: Susan Ray on Nicholas Ray" (22:00, HD) is a fascinating interview with Ray's widow, who discusses the director's drives and how Bigger Than Life reflects his thematic interests.
Last up is the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (2:42, HD), hosted by producer-star Mason.
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