Wednesday, March 17, 2021

#2,540. Bigger Than Life (1956) - The Films of Nicholas Ray


The opening scenes of Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life feel as if they were lifted straight out of a Douglas Sirk film. Like Ray, Sirk did some of his best work in the 1950’s (All That Heaven Allows, Imitation of Life), films set in the supposedly idyllic American suburbs that stripped away the artifice, exploring the conformity and pressures such a lifestyle demands.

We get that same feeling as we’re introduced to Bigger Than Life’s Ed Avery (James Mason), a school teacher who lives with his beautiful wife Lou (Barbara Rush) and young son Richie (Christopher Olsen) in a nice, middle-class neighborhood. But as we soon learn, Ed’s life is far from perfect. To make ends meet, he has to work two jobs (aside from teaching, he’s a dispatcher at a cab company). He hides his second job from Lou out of fear she might think it’s beneath him (instead, Ed’s secrecy has convinced his wife that he’s having an affair).

Even more worrying is the fact that Ed suffers from bouts of severe pain, which he at first chalks up to overwork. But when he collapses at home one evening, a frightened Lou calls Ed’s fellow teacher and best friend Wally (Walter Matthau) who takes Ed straight to the hospital. As it turns out, Ed has a very rare disorder, one that, if left untreated, could prove fatal in a year’s time. Fortunately, a new miracle drug – Cortizone - has been effective in treating this disorder, and his doctors prescribe it for Ed immediately.

It’s at this point that Bigger Than Life transforms from a story of suburbia into a living nightmare, told as only a director like Nicholas Ray could tell it.

As Ed takes the Cortizone, his mood begins to change. He worries less and less about his financial woes, quitting his second job and shelling out money he doesn’t have to buy Lou an expensive dress and Richie a new bike.

But it doesn’t stop there; as Ed consumes more and more Cortizone - in doses far greater than the doctors prescribed – he experiences delusions of grandeur, declaring himself the savior of the American education system and testing his new theories on Richie, pressuring the boy with tests and math problems night and day. What’s more, he berates Lou in front of their son, shouting that he never should have married somebody who was his intellectual inferior.

Concerned for his friend, Wally does a little research and discovers that the side effects brought on by an overuse of Cortizone are every bit as dangerous as Ed’s physical ailment. Of course, if Ed doesn’t take the Cortizone, he’ll be dead in a year. Faced with this incredible dilemma, Lou and Wally do what they can to save Ed from both the Cortizone and his own destructive behavior before it’s too late.

Bigger Than Life is an incredibly powerful, often disturbing motion picture that shines a light on the perils of drug abuse. As he did in movies like They Live by Night and Johnny Guitar, Nicholas Ray infuses the film with style to spare. One of Bigger Than Life’s most memorable images is that of a strung-out Ed standing behind Richie, who is hard at work on a math problem that Ed assigned him. Having already deprived Richie of his lunch (for failing to catch a football), Ed now says he can’t have dinner either until the problem is solved. Lit from below, Ed seems to tower over Richie in this scene, casting a shadow that fills the entire background. It’s as if Ed has become a monster, looming over his son, and we feel the mounting pressure that poor Richie feels.

Yet in true Ray fashion, the cinematic bells and whistles never outshine the characters or their story. James Mason delivers one of his strongest performances as a man whose addictions have unleashed the demon inside, while Barbara Rush is equally excellent as the patient wife who wants to protect both her husband (from himself) and her son (from Ed). We watch in stunned silence as she remains calm throughout, even as her entire world is falling apart, until she has no choice but to take matters into her own hands.

The tension never stops mounting, reaching its zenith in a final act that would have been right at home in a horror movie. Bigger Than Life is a masterpiece.
Rating: 10 out of 10

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