“God was wrong,” Ed Avery (James Mason) bluntly instructs toward the climax of Bigger Than Life, Nicholas Ray’s mid-‘50s Father Knows Best meets Requiem for a Dream that’s often read as an excavation of traditional patriarchal values. Even divorced from the context of the film, the man’s words are a direct slap, a nihilistic refutation of the core tenets of mid-century, not-quite-urban, not-quite-rural American living. But the reason the words continue to resonate is because the movie’s “critique” of masculine filial behavior is far more observational than prescriptive. Ray’s case study adopts much the same attitude toward fatherhood as Ed’s doctors do toward his emerging psychosis. The direction isn’t the problem, just the velocity. God may not have been wrong to stop Abraham from killing his son Isaac, but the unnerving Bigger Than Life suggests that’s only because God, unlike Ed, knew when to say when, not because patriarchy deserves to be questioned.
Ed and his wife Lou (Barbara Rush) share an unassuming lower-middle-class home appointed with abstruse angles, mobile asymmetrical shadows, a cold water heater, and a collection of framed advertisements touting European travel destinations. Ed works as a grade school teacher but moonlights during the afternoon as a taxi dispatcher in order to make ends meet and, one presumes, build up just enough to send himself, Lou, and their son Richie to at least one of those locations currently decorating their drab walls. Unfortunately, Ed is suddenly stricken with an extremely rare, unusually painful condition that requires a prescription to cortisone. It doesn’t take long for his desire to avoid debilitating pain (and the fear of untimely death) to graduate into full-blown addiction.
Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum’s somewhat convoluted screenplay (based on a New Yorker article) doesn’t ever come up with a scientifically satisfactory explanation for how and why cortisone turns Ed’s Schoolmaster Jykyll into Daddy Hyde other than to pass off all extenuating side effects off on the treatment plan’s “experimental” nature. Ray, wisely, chooses to subjugate that angle, downplaying any notion that the problem exists solely within those little white $2-per-day pills. By casting noted stuffed shirt James Mason (who, admittedly, was one of the film’s producers), Ray begins Bigger Than Life on a note of guarded abnormality. As noted by author Jonathan Lethem on Criterion’s new DVD release, Mason is conspicuously too effete, too esoteric to serve as the sort of Everyman that would allow for Bigger Than Life to be accepted as a strict proto-“Just Say No” melodrama. Ray’s use of Mason hints that the psychosis that emerges throughout the film is simply an assisted manifestation of what has always been lurking under the surface.
Ray’s depiction of Ed’s spiral into drug-addled psychosis is, in some ways, the inverse of his portrait of Jim Stark’s family in Rebel Without a Cause. Whereas Stark’s delinquency is presented as potentially related to the lack of a strong patriarchal family unit at home, the Avery family comes to suffer under the violence of a newly assertive masculine power shift, though it’s admittedly a largely psychological violence rendered out by Ray through grimly pushy key lighting, expressionistic angles, and liberal snatches of David Raksin’s Stravinsky-on-Quaaludes score. The Stark household had not enough fatherly presence. The Avery family eventually finds itself tyrannized by too much of it.
Interestingly, modern audiences may come away from Bigger Than Life less frustrated by Ed’s delusions of grandeur, fiscal irresponsibility, and hubristic attack on PTA members and more concerned with wife Lou’s inability to redirect Ed’s influence, and her unwillingness to do so. Sure, she slams her share of bathroom mirrors and makes more than one private phone call behind his back, but Lou’s instinctive response to Ed’s climactic avowal to stab their son with a pair of scissors is to suggest the two of them take a walk.
Conceptually, Bigger Than Life is a bit of a leaky time capsule, but Ray’s dynamic showmanship and his unerring knack for mapping out psychological stress points against the four incredibly distant corners of his Cinemascopic frames are in full form (the gravity of nearly every shot feels subliminally off). It emerges as one of the key Hollywood horror movies of the 1950s.
Practically flawless. Criterion's 1980p transfer is ravishing, handling both the movie's copious shadowboxers and Lou's eye-popping orange Sunday dress with equal panache. The 2.55:1 Cinemascope framing appears accurate, with strikingly tight compositions and sharp detail. There is some film grain, but nowhere near as much as you might expect from a film of its age. Maybe I was high on prescription medication while watching it, but this seems to me easily one of the strongest visual presentations I've ever seen on a Criterion Blu-ray for a film made before I was born. The sound is a little bit flatter, but my litmus test for old movies on home video is how it handles string-heavy scores, and this is one of the least shrill I've heard from the '50s in a long while.
This disc marks the first appearance by Nicholas Ray to Criterion DVD and Blu-ray, so the only disappointment coming away from this package is that there could've been so much more. It's time to play catch-up, Criterion! That said, everything they've included here is thoughtful and well presented (in full HD quality too). The two-pronged centerpiece is the critical insights of Geoff Andrew and B. Kite, who respectively contribute an audio commentary and liner notes. Both insightfully place the movie within its context among Ray's other movies, with Geoff Andrew focusing a little bit more on the behind-the-scenes details and Kite's typically well-worded analysis stressing thematic (almost esoteric) links. Both are invaluable critical readings. Additionally, both Ray and his widow Susan have their say in separate interviews, the former of which was filmed in the late '70s. And sweetening the pot is a personal love letter to the film from author Jonathan Lethem, who manages to locate within Walter Matthau's performance as Ed's gym teacher friend what has to count as one of the most stealth gay characters of all time.
The mirrors are watching you in Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life, one of the most effective horror movies of the '50s.