Directed by Nicholas Ray
United States, 1956
Leonard Cohen’s song Story of Isaac recontextualizes the biblical story to modern times with the lyrics, “You who build these altars now to sacrifice these children, you must not do it anymore. The scheme is not a vision if you never have been tempted by a demon or a god.” Nicholas Ray’s 1956 film Bigger Than Life finds James Mason as the builder of altars and schemer. The exact figure Cohen would later admonish.
Mason is schoolteacher Ed Avery. He’s happily married to his wife Lou (Barbara Rush) and they have a son Richie (Christopher Olsen). They host bridge gatherings for other teachers, including gym instructor and close friend Wally Gibbs (Walter Matthau). Everything is 1950s-domestic and happy. That is, until Ed starts having agonizing stomach pains and fainting spells.
A quick visit to the hospital, featuring a hilariously transparent X-Ray machine that presciently reminds of Hasboro’s Operation board game, lands Ed on the prescription list for the experimental drug cortisone.
Cortisone stops the pain, but it has side effects. Ed has sudden bursts of manic energy. He cries from severe depression. As Ed becomes more dependent on cortisone his actions become even more erratic. He threatens to leave Lou, blaming her intellectual inferiority. He accuses Lou and Wally of having an affair. He claims to have a “new idea” that is revolutionary, but won’t let Lou in on the plan.
He gradually becomes a demagogue of sorts, obsessed with ending child pampering proclaiming, “Childhood is a congenital disease, and the purpose of education is to cure it!” Richie is the object of his youth-focused wrath.
Director Nicholas Ray, best known for a run of films in the 1950s that include In a Lonely Place, Johnny Guitar and Rebel Without a Cause, shoots Bigger Than Life in a style very reminiscent of another 1950s satirist, Douglas Sirk.
His saturated, CinemaScope frame features largely static, symmetrical compositions, which Ray uses to emphasize both the complacency of domesticity and Ed’s progressively looming presence.
Lou is a complicated figure in the film. She is overwhelmingly subservient throughout and, when she has one outburst, immediately apologizes and asks Ed for forgiveness. It is difficult to tell therefore, whether Ray intends her as simply a “real-world” representation of a female presence in the home in the 1950s, or if she is part of the satire. This is intentional on the director’s part. It is not until the hospital sequence where the film is even recognizable as a satire, and Ray takes pains to maintain an appearance of neutrality.
It is the gradual build-up of small tongue-in-cheek moments that make clear Ray’s intentions, and one scene in particular shines through. Ed has refused to allow dinner to begin until Richie solves a simple math problem. Ray frames this scene as the most dramatic in the film, where Ed’s shadow on the wall dominates over man and child, acting as both representation of split personality and Nosferatu-styled horror-film remnant.
When Ed finally leaves the room Lou rushes in with a glass of milk for Richie, making him gulp it down before his father returns as though she were giving water to a dying man. Richie solves the problem, down to two decimal places, and they sit down to eat. But you can’t outsmart a man on cortisone. Ed quickly realizes that there is a glass of milk missing from the pitcher. It’s the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Bigger Than Life belongs alongside 1957’s A Face in the Crowd as a great satire of 1950s Americana with both Mason’s Ed Avery and Andy Griffith’s Lonesome Rhodes as portraits of paranoia and fear-mongering. Ray’s send up of the education system, addiction, pharmaceuticals and family life is also relevant today, finding its modern companion piece in American Beauty.
– Neah Dhand