Lost in the Movies: Bigger Than Life

Bigger Than Life

The first dragon blocking the path to my personal Holy Grail has been slain. Nearly a month ago, I made a list. Featuring the dozen films unavailable on Netflix that I most wanted to see, I encouraged others to follow suit (and so they did). Eventually I'm hoping to post the collected master list, compiled of all the unseen and hard-to-find movies that people picked. Anyway, one of the titles on my list was Nicholas Ray's 1956 widescreen classic Bigger Than Life; now, thanks to the wonders of cable and TV recording, I'm finally able to catch it.

By this point I've seen the majority of Ray's acknowledged classics: They Live By Night, On Dangerous Ground, In a Lonely Place, Johnny Guitar, and of course Rebel Without a Cause. In The Dreamers, Bernardo Bertolucci's tribute to cinephilia, one character - the naive American - says he really likes Nick Ray. Louis Garrel (the only one of the trio who looks and acts like he actually stepped out of the sixties), playing the French revolutionary dilettante, levels a penetrating gaze in his new friend's direction and sallies forth with a joust. "They Live By Night?" "No-o," the American answers, hesitatingly, defensively. "More like Johnny Guitar and Rebel Without a Cause." Though Garrel nods approvingly (if somewhat condescendingly), I agree with his natural instinct to highlight the earlier work. Not so much They Live By Night, but On Dangerous Ground and In a Lonely Place won me over to Ray more than Rebel. Where does Bigger Than Life fit into this spectrum?

Well, like Johnny and Rebel, Bigger Than Life is in Technicolor and like Rebel it's in widescreen. Ray's early work is built largely around faces - wounded expressions, the flickering of anger, desperation, or doomed love. The director moulds evocative spaces in these works (I think especially of the snowscapes in On Dangerous Ground) but the human visage remains central to his outlook. In the widescreen works, and even with the non-widescreen Johnny, the surroundings begin to compete with the characters for attention. Ray leaves gaping empty spaces in the composition and the alienation of his characters becomes less passionate and more morose. Both Rebel and Bigger Than Life have domestic settings, and in applying their panoramic views to the comforts of suburbia, they suggest a largeness within the placidity - eventually both their protagonists will seek to escape and overcome the limits of their existence, and the compositions give weight to the sense of a larger universe looming within the bounds of fifties America.

Actually, I've always felt that the sixties capitalized on a sense of "bigness," of limitless potential already inherent in the fifties. It may not have been utilized but it was there - the postwar atmosphere charged with sensations of a new world and new horizons. In Ray's film those possibilities - as yet unfulfilled - materialize themselves in the opening up of space itself. He doesn't crowd his vistas, allowing that extra room to facilitate a sense of untapped potential. One senses we're seeing things through the protagonists' eyes: they are widescreen people moving about uneasily in a box-shaped, small-sized TV world. If we see this movie in light of Rebel, Ed Avery (James Mason) isn't "bigger than life" - it's everyone else who's too small for it. But it isn't that simple because Ed's delusions of grandeur are not as romantic as the teenage delinquent's rebellion - and if the film's design potentially puts us in his shoes, Ray holds back from putting us entirely into his mind, which eventually makes for frustrating viewing.

There are suggestions that Ed Avery is restless from the first time we see him. He is polite and reserved, declining to tell friends and families about his constant pain and his second job (he works in a garage when the school day is over). Yet in conjunction with the widescreen photography and subtle set design (the Averys decorate their home with travel posters for exotic European locales), James Mason perfectly suggests a kind of repressed longing. After a game of bridge, when his wife comments that their guests were dull, Ed responds resignedly to the effect of, "So are we." I laughed aloud when he spoke this line because his candor was refreshing, but there's also something touching in his wife's reaction: a wounded expression and a gentle, nervous query - has he found someone less dull?

Things won't be dull for long. Ed's pains increase; he's taken to the hospital and diagnosed with a probably fatal arterial condition. Only Cortisone, a new miracle drug, can keep him alive. But as Ed begins to pop more and more of the pills, he becomes psychotic, eventually threatening to kill his own son. Before this, the film does a marvellous job setting up Ed Avery's life, with its quiet little pleasures and buried frustrations. There are cracks all over this portrait of the American Dream: Ed's physical pain, the constant worrying about money, the admission that the family and all their friends are dull. When Ed is rushed to the gleamingly modern hospital, it's as if science fiction has swooped into a comfortable little family TV show. Like a robot has started malfunctioning, and must be fixed.

But if the story seems to be subtly condemning Ed's placid lifestyle, it doesn't offer much of an alternative. As Ed loses his mind, becoming obsessive-compulsive, aggressively overbearing, and irresponsibly manic, it isn't much fun for his wife and son, nor for us. Yes, the film presents an implosion of the nuclear family but there isn't much subversive glee on display. Ed's delusions eventually don't take the form of "insight through insanity" even if they seem to be headed in that direction. Going in, I had the impression that Ray's mise en scene would reflect Ed's fractured psyche, but it doesn't really play out that way. Yes, we see broken mirrors and hear menacing music, and the house is overwhelmed by shadows as Ed descends into madness. But save for some subjective shots near the end, accompanied by the cranked-up noise of the television, we never really crawl inside Ed's head.

Instead, we view his crackup from the outside and the manifestations of his behavior are undeniably disconcerting. Mason's portrayal of an unhinged personality rings true, but it's not a performance which lets us see what's going on underneath - how could it? The film almost becomes a horror movie in its last half-hour as Ed's mania veers into homicidal territory and the avenues of escape are hemmed in. But the horror is his family's, not his own. Ed is primarily the monster loosed upon the innocents rather than the tragic hero. Since I was expecting an increasingly subjective look at the character's madness, I was somewhat disappointed that my engagement with Ed's condition wasn't higher.

Ray usually takes the outsider's view, but this time the outsider appears even more lost than those who are "dull." Hence we are left without any real direction or escape. Nor is the character - though reunited with his sanity and his family in the end, he must keep on taking the dangerous drug or he will die. Here, ultimately, may be Ray's message. In modern circumstances, we can either die a spiritual death or risk madness: it's either "dull" but comfortable domesticity or homicidal, unhinged mania. Neither scenario is satisfying, and it's a bleaker condition than Ray usually presents his protagonists. A character in In a Lonely Place recites this coda to a relationship: "I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me." Ed Avery doesn't get any of these options, except for death. Perhaps he's really riding high when he has that mad gleam in his eyes but the view from the outside looks pretty grim. If he's living for a few weeks while drug-induced insanity has him in its grips, it's a life few would find appealing.

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