Bigger Than Life (1956)

This is a movie I’ve been meaning to watch for years and just have never made the time or felt like I was in the right frame of mind. Finally coming off a rather crazily nausea-inducing sick of my own this evening, I naturally felt this was the best time….The simple plot of the film concerns a family man in the late 1950s who literally collapses from exhaustion, only to find out through the miracles of modern medicine that he has a rare terminal condition that can only be treated with the new, experimental drug Cortisone (now, of course, warningly used by doctors everywhere). The drama, or rather more properly cinematic melodrama, that ensues has to do with the mental side effects that come along with the experimental part.
It’s amazing to see a film that challenges the audience by subtlety pushing the boundaries of its usual cages. This has to do with the fact that it is directed by Nicholas Ray. I’ve only seen a few pictures by the man, but everything I have seen has been superb, whether its the odd, gender-bending horror-western of Johnny Guitar or, perhaps his most well-known film, the forever iconic Rebel Without a Cause. Like both of these previous pictures, Ray draws out a wealth of subtext from the situations, commenting on everything from the trap of middle-class consumerism to the dangers of literal interpretations of the Bible to modern medicine ultimately (and frighteningly) relying on uncertainty/faith to ‘progress’. Even little details that may be overlooked as minor are surely intentional commentary, like the little boy saying to his mother after seeing an (noticeably African-American) orderly mopping up the hospital waiting room: “Gee, Mom I guess some people work awful late!” (emphasis in the actor’s delivery). Ah, the naivete of youth (whether it’s one child or a whole country).

Perhaps Ray is only retrospectively revered in this academic-type over-analytic way, but I take stock in it. He was clearly, objectively a maverick director who happened to attempt to transmit some of the cultural influence around him as American life was making its great generational shift from its so-called naive idealism to a more troublesome, complicated awareness of the both the world around it and within. All of this is conspicuously absent from the actual story of the film (in fact their are no teenagers, and aside from the aforementioned orderly, no people of color in the entire film). On one level the film uses the characters in this film as a metaphor for the destruction of this type of idealized domesticity; a literal psychosis is induced into the American Family, never to be the same again. So, for all those people who would make a clear dichotomy between Ozzie & Harriet and the more current, nuclear family-based sitcom of your choice (there aren’t many left, are there?), this is a film that serves as an early, clear signifying cultural break between them.
The kind of brash honesty on display here is exemplified in the scene on the staircase near the end of the film that is almost shocking in the turn of emotions the mother (Ruth Green) goes through to counter the husband’s manic thought process (emotional to logical to sexual in a matter of moments). Of course, you could dismiss the scene as a woman hysterically dealing with a crazy person, but the person happens to be her husband and that clearly matters in the scene. The arc of the mother character is rather unique to its contemporary Hollywood films, as she is “allowed” to transform from passive domestic to struggling family-head (forced to deceive everyone around her to maintain normalcy) to the point where she strongly confronts the establishment that she has relied upon (“I am not falling to pieces!”), only to find it fails to provide any answers (the doctors explanation: ‘all drugs have the potential for damage’…). Given this, it is unfortunate that she is never really given direct focus as a character.

The father (James Mason) is a man literally, unknowingly killing himself to achieve the American dream of middle class suburban bliss. As a school teacher he has to take a second evening job as a taxi cab dispatcher to make ends meet, so that he can provide for his wife to stay home with the child. The main crisis that evolves hinges on the anxiety the father has from knowing he cannot afford to get proper medical treatment.
It is films like these that retrospectively bring forth the suggestion that we sometimes revel in the nostalgia of this time, as if it were some better time where mommy didn’t have to work and American life was just dandy (the film sneaks in the detail late in that mother is fully capable of working herself, if she had to support the family and her ailing husband, but she prefers not to consider it an option, as it is clearly an insult to the masculinity of the time). Jonathan Lethem articulates some of these ideas much better than I on a supplement on the Criterion DVD release, so I would recommend checking that out if any of this is interesting to you….I’m not sure if this type of progressive thinking by the filmmakers is enough to be one of the criteria employed for using the word ‘masterpiece’, but the film is surely is worthy of additional high praise in retrospect for it. All of these anxieties are laid out for our (subliminal) perusal in a way that doesn’t force them onto us; in a way that doesn’t render the story inert, but makes those of us who happen to notice them appreciate the complexity to this ordinary (if not otherwise “normal”) American family story.

Like the best of Douglas Sirk‘s American studio pictures, the use of melodrama as the shell of the film is marvelous. Working within the expected highs and lows of both performance and music not only fit the manic-depressive episodes of the main character, but perhaps the main thematic point that Ray is working with (if you want to make a bold generalization, one could say he is commenting on the very highs and lows of America; the idea of ‘what goes up, must come down’, if not eventually at least cyclically). I would bet that the filmmakers weren’t entirely happy with the ending of the film, but I suppose it was still required of the time. Even with how everything turns out, there is an air of off-kilter atmosphere about it (no one is guaranteeing a “cure” for anything here in word or image). In fact, the film seems to make a meta-commentary within the conversation about how “we all” want to ‘look on the brighter side’ of things (just like it made with the critical comment the father makes about the television show the little boy was watching at the beginning of the film: “Doesn’t it bore you, it’s always the same story?”). Despite the traditional emotional manipulation involved in this type of film, it clearly has something(s) to say wrapped up in the spectacle of its technical beauty of image (equally in the shadows on the wall and the sunlight beaming across the room), as well as in its use of music (noticeably credited above all other technicians in bigger font); it feels like it’s saying (to its contemporary viewers and perhaps to us now as well): Wake Up America!, your own personal psychosis may be coming soon….

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