The Films of Nicholas Ray: Bigger than Life (1956)

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Coming an year after his most popular film Rebel Without a Cause, Nicholas Ray’s Bigger than Life is another character driven drama that is equally intense as the James Dean-starrer. Ray was something of a rebel in his time and often explored subjects that was a little hard for the audiences to fully accept.  Bigger than Life was no exception. It was about a man addicted to a certain pill and ironically, audiences found this “pill” harder to swallow. What’s more interesting is that Ray himself became addicted to drugs and alcohol after the film came out and led to Hollywood distancing themselves from him. James Mason plays Ed Avery, a schoolteacher with a wife and young son. He makes extra income by working for a cab company on the side. When symptoms of a seemingly life-threatening disease rear their ugly heads, Avery is taken for diagnosis and given an unpleasant prognosis. When doctors tell him about a new miracle drug that’s been discovered – Cortisone – Avery agrees to turn himself into a guinea pig. The drug renders him hyperactive along with a few other behavioral changes.

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When his intake goes beyond the prescribed dosage, his behavior becomes increasingly erratic and adversely affects both his domestic life and work. While Rebel Without a Case was about teenage angst, Bigger than Life examines middle-age angst and is about one man who is attempting to break free off his claustrophobic middle-class existence. It’s about his struggle to belong and appear normal inside a middle-class society that is constantly striving to keep up appearances. The film was based on a 1955 article that appeared in The New Yorker called “Ten Feet Tall”. James Mason was the producer and I’ve heard that he was also a writer on this (uncredited). Mason delivers a performance that is arguably his best. It’s one of the scariest and most chilling performances I’ve seen. This drug brings out the worst inside him and transforms into an almost Frankenstein-like figure. There is almost a Hitchcockian level of suspense in trying to figure out what would his character do next. Avery turns into a dictator in his own house, becoming increasingly suspicious of his wife and son, trying to control their attitude as well as anyone who comes to their home.

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The scene where he asks his son to solve a math problem is one of the most frightening. He tells his son that if he doesn’t solve the problem correctly, he won’t be getting his dinner. (In an earlier scene, he tells him that if he doesn’t practice his Baseball skills, he won’t be getting his lunch.) Ray uses the CinemaScope frame to good effect. The medium is normally used for shooting Westerns and Biblical epics and some would ask what good is CinemaScope on a family drama? Well, watching some of the scenes in the film would tell you why. This particular scene I am talking about, is framed and lit in such a way that Mason is made to look like a huge scary Gorilla. That’s how his shadow looks and it looms over his son as if ready to growl at any instant. And at the same time, his wife tries to feed this boy something and tries to get him to drink a glass of milk when Mason is occupied with something else in the next room. If there’s one false note in the film, I’d say it has to be the contrived ending where things are tied up a little too neatly.

 

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