Criterion // 1956 // 95 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker // March 23rd, 2010
Portrait of a man with a habit!
"God was wrong."
Ed Avery (James Mason, A Star Is Born) is an elementary school teacher in a small town. Unbeknownst to his wife, Lou (Barbara Rush, It Came From Outer Space), and young son, Richie (Christopher Olsen, The Man Who Knew Too Much), he's also moonlighting as a taxi dispatcher to pick up a little extra cash.
Ed's been experiencing odd pains, and one night, he collapses. His doctors diagnose a rare disease that generally proves fatal within a year, but cortisone, a new wonder drug, has been remarkably effective in fighting this ailment. At first, the cortisone does seem to be working miracles: Ed's pain goes away, and he's never felt better. But Ed finds himself relying on the drug more and more, and his personality undergoes a horrifying transformation. He becomes paranoid and tyrannical, and Lou and Richie watch helplessly as the man they love turns into a monster.
Almost as subversive as Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows, though not nearly as perverse as Sam Fuller's The Naked Kiss, Bigger Than Life is both a harrowing look at "secret" drug addiction and a commentary on contented small-town, middle-class domesticity.
Ed, Lou, and Richie are clean cut, "respectable" people, well-liked in the community and seemingly happy. But even as the film starts, there are signs of discontent. Ed is ashamed that he's had to take a second job to make ends meet, so ashamed that he doesn't tell Lou. For her part, Lou comes to believe that Ed is having an affair and after an evening playing bridge with friends, lashes out -- but her anger is restrained, proper. This seems to be one of the earmarks of their life and relationship: constraint. Lou and Ed are a loving couple, but we never detect any passion between them; nor does he seem especially passionate about his work.
The theme running through Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life is middle class complacency and the sterility of the "American dream." Ray based Bigger Than Life on a magazine about the side effects of cortisone called "Ten Feet Tall," a descriptor Ed uses to describe how he feels when he's out of the hospital and home. In fact, the cortisone has the effect of seeming to free Ed from his humdrum existence. Of course, it's a false sense of freedom -- the kind all drugs give -- but the Ed we'd seen earlier, so somber and dedicated, becomes at first exuberant, treating his wife and children to expensive presents and himself to an inflated sense of importance. As the drug takes hold, we see Ed losing his grip and becoming deranged, spouting his views at anyone who'll listen. He offers a bizarre proto-libertarian rant at a PTA meeting, then tortures his son about football and math.
Alarming, too, is the passiveness of Lou, so rigid and proper that she does nothing more proactive than sneak a phone call to one of Ed's friends when her life and child are imperiled. Her reactions -- and inactions -- are bizarre, but telling. In 1950's America, everyone has a place, and you don't step out of it. Her place is dutiful wife, and to seek help behind her husband's back -- even when he's clearly in need of help -- would be betrayal. Lou stubbornly refuses to do this, even as her household is falling apart around her.
Ray's work here is superb. There is so much going on under the surface, that Bigger Than Life demands more than one viewing to take it all in. Note, for instance, the way the Avery home is shot. Although it's a widescreen picture (Cinemascope! Technicolor!), Ray fills his frames on either end so the home seems cramped and confining -- Ed and his family truly do seem trapped in their environment. The colors in the home are muted and dark, and when a bright color is introduced, such as an orange dress Lou wears, it stands out uncomfortably. Late in the film, when Ed is throes of delusion and persecuting his son, Ray films it like a horror movie, with eerie lighting and Mason's long shadow looming like a demon. I don't know if I would call this his "masterpiece" -- for me, that would be In a Lonely Place -- but this is audacious filmmaking.
This is possibly Mason's finest work. Unlike many of Ray's protagonists, Ed doesn't start out as a loner or outcast, but thanks to the drug, he becomes one. We appreciate him in these early scenes, but we hardly feel a connection to him, and Mason's performance makes him likable if a little aloof. As the film goes on, we see him change significantly, but while the role is written for Ed to go over the top, Mason's performance stays grounded with laser-like focus. The actor plays Ed's growing psychosis as a natural extension of the character, incrementally, going from vamping with cigarette and preening in front of a mirror to becoming a dangerous, raving zealot with a terrifying sense of logic. Rush is fine as his patient, helpless wife, and Olsen excellent as his young son who cannot grasp the monster his father has become.
Criterion's work on this disc is exceptional. The widescreen picture looks great. There's an odd, thin line down the right of the screen in the opening minutes, but beyond that, the image is near pristine. Low light scenes read perfectly, and colors are strong and true. The Dolby mono audio track is the original, and it's fine for this dialogue-heavy film.
Although this is a single disc, Criterion gives us a solid slate of extras, starting with a feature-length commentary by Ray biographer Geoff Andrew. "Profile of Nicholas Ray" is a half-hour television interview with the director from 1977, in which Ray talks mainly about Rebel Without a Cause. Author Jonathan Lethem (Chronic City) offers a fairly substantial analysis of Bigger Than Life -- which he cites as one of his favorite films -- in a half-hour video interview. Lethem himself acknowledges that a few of his observations might be a bit of a reach, but they're certainly interesting and add to the viewing experience. Ray's widow, Susan, offers up her insights on the film and talks about Ray's work. We also get a trailer and a 24-page booklet with an essay by B. Kite.
The supplemental material provided by Criterion is not only worthy of this classic film, it's essential for fully appreciating it. On its own terms, Bigger Than Life could easily be dismissed as a well-made but overwrought cautionary tale. As Judge Gordon Sullivan notes in his review of the Blu-ray, "The story of Ed Avery's descent into madness has a stereotypical melodramatic quality to it that might turn the casual viewer off." Fortunately, the interviews and commentary help provide context to help the viewer appreciate the bigger picture.
Another excellent package from Criterion and a must-own for fans of Nicholas Ray. Highly recommended.
Review content copyright © 2010 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.55:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 1956
MPAA Rating: Not Rated