Film Reviews

Bigger Than Life Nicholas Ray

Rating - 8/10

Adapted to film from Berton Roueché's 1955 article in The New Yorker, "Ten Feet Tall," Bigger Than Life (1956) emerges as Nicholas Ray's dark portrait of American suburbia in the 1950s.  The film chronicles the medication and subsequent drug abuse of struggling grade school teacher, Ed Avery (Mason Jones), who is diagnosed with a rare inflammatory disease of the arteries, periarteritis nodosa, which is the root cause of erratic vascular spasms.  Through its succinct and well-trimmed ninety-five minutes, Bigger Than Life develops as a stark meditation on the pursuit of the American Dream, ill-effects of extremes, the endurance of physical and emotional pain, and the importance of faith.  Films of Nicholas Ray author Geoff Andrew explains the director's all-embracing theme of mortality that unifies these collective ideas.  Once Ed begins a regular dosage of cortisone, an experimental drug required to remedy the disease, he exhibits drastic changes in personality, ultimately rejecting his former suburban identity in favor of an egoistic view of himself as a father, member of the community, and even revolutionary philosopher.  Desperately struggling to remain relevant, Ed embarks on a tirade to overturn the current educational and religious climates during which the film makes repeated jabs to its figurative title, augmented further by Ray's careful camera manipulation.  As much as the production is a conflict of extremes during the course of one man's therapy and the adverse effects on his family, a duality unravels between the tension of Bigger Than Life's naturalistic and expressionistic imagery.

The most glaring commentary on extremes arrives in the first act when Ed is initially prescribed the cortisone.  His ultimatum is to consume a pill once every six hours ad infinitum, or, conversely prolong the spasms until his predicted death within a year.  It is a classic Catch-22 situation, and the director continually accentuates this dilemma with the immediately ensuing portrayals of Ed in direct contrast to his prior pessimistic and anguished self.  Seemingly, cortisone has provided him with a new lease on life; while lacking in self-awareness, Ed becomes overtaken with the idea of a fresh outlook necessitating new possessions, particularly formal wear for his wife Lou (Barbara Rush).  Additionally, Ed and his son Richie (Christopher Olsen) recklessly pass around a football inside their home, and the father of the house beams as a glowing example of athleticism.  However, this behavior is merely a temporary side effect, and a domineering patriarch emerges from within who reduces his own wife to a servant.  Ed also awakens in the middle of the night sobbing, his body thrown into a moody chaos.  In this particular circumstance, the juxtaposition of these scenes relay the extremely positive results of the drug, which are then absolutely negated by its adverse or uncertain derivatives.  In a sense, Ed's metamorphosis is curiously like a realistic version of Seth Brundle's in David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986).  While this comparison may seem rather outlandish, the science fiction film is actually chronicled or modeled much like the crisis of Ed Avery.  In The Fly, Brundle experiences an instantaneous increase in agility and a change in temperament, which is immediately offset by the realization of his mutating body.  Here, Avery undergoes the same immediate effects but then suffers a rather metaphorical or mental mutation instead.

Perhaps it is Ray's inherent solipsism (the belief that the "self" is the only reality) that compels the film into darker realms of the individual psyche; Ed's increasing distortion of himself yields progressively darker, expressionistic lighting, presence of shadows and narcissistic monologues that reflect his fearful mental condition.  At a P.T.A. night at his school, Ed delivers a comically solemn speech that condemns the education system and promotes the idea of "the unspoiled instincts from childhood spilling into adult life."  Essentially, Ed endorses a primitive objectivism (maybe aloofly akin to Ayn Rand) where students are taught virtue and a sense of duty rather than creative or artistic expression.  In a proactive turn, Ed then exhibits a steadfast willingness to realize his own hypothesis, unofficially "divorcing" his wife and any other interference.  This sudden intense fervor and delusional focus on a personal quest is, in addition to any added psychosis of the cortisone, Ed's coping mechanism to his perception of a looming and inevitable death.  Panicked and refusing to confront mortality and accept mediocrity, Ed builds his ego by ensuring that his work will be immortal, sacrificing everything in order to win society's accolades and solipsistically prove that his vision is the only correct one.  Halfway through the film's Criterion commentary track, Geoff Andrew presents an interesting argument regarding solipsism of the individual.  "It's very difficult for us not to see ourselves as being the center of the world, because we can only perceive through our own eyes, ears and imaginations."  Even though Ed's behavior magnifies his own self-seeking prophecies of delirium and the betrayal of his former self, this sudden reversal is not devoid of innate empathy.  While the director may lean toward a pessimistic attitude for his host family, it is his camerawork and framing that also allows for a multidimensional father to emerge and not just a superficial fiend.  In an early scene where Lou gratefully drives Ed to the school after his hospitalization, Ed remarks about his wealth as a husband and father.  "When I came down into the hospital lobby and I saw you and Richie again, I felt ten feet tall."  "You've always been ten feet tall to me," Lou joyously replies.  A lone Ed is then captured at a close-up from a low angle, his frame appears larger than the structure of the building in the background.  This exchange not only genuinely creates a visual and aural link to the film's source material but illuminates the dichotomy of a mortal man in relation to his symbolic stature before and after the cortisone's manipulation.

Due to Ed's dictatorial criticisms of those around him, his constant inner conflict is often disguised or downplayed.  Faced with the repercussions of reporting cortisone side effects to Doctor Norton, Ed realizes this failure will result in re-hospitalization, which will damage his reputation as a community member and potentially sever his career as a schoolteacher.  Instead, the enormity or imbalance in his life resides solely within his myopic decision-making, so Ed sees the prescribed amount cortisone is impotent and unadvisedly begins to consume more than the recommended dosage.  All of these factors encapsulate the concept of maintaining external appearances, falsifying a situation's resolution rather than exposing its truth.  That instability fuels the film's gradual emphasis on faith, which comes to a head at the conclusion.  Norton bluntly inquires to Lou, "Do you have faith?" to which she responds, "Yes, I have faith, doctor... faith in my husband, in my son, in the family we can be together."  Extending further beyond her words is a sense of conviction in the broad sense; she must have faith in the doctors to cure Ed's ailments, to tolerate the shortcomings of her husband, and believe in a god to restore the contented life she once knew.  In a final intriguing scene, Ed recovers from a deep sleep to recall a dream of Abraham Lincoln.  Essentially, the representation of the sixteenth president is Ed's other drug-affected self, as he calls him as "big and ugly and beautiful as he was in life."  By linking Lincoln with this peculiar dream, the reference becomes a multifunctional comment on Ed's deluded persona, but it serves to immortalize him in a way that he had previously intended.  As one of the bleakest American films of the 1950s, Bigger Than Life remains a bold statement from Nicholas Ray, one that may have been his greatest achievement if it did not resolve to end on an exceedingly positive note.  Although an uplifting finale is typical of any Twentieth Century Fox production of the era, the film's official close is also noncommittal as a "happy ending" that fulfills its own transient prophecy; it will be immortalized and remembered not for its last minute but for its first ninety-four.