Matt Messbarger 03/23/2010
The ‘50s weren’t all Bob Hope and Doris Day comedies. Quite a few American films from that decade were honest assessments of the psychic toll taken during an era where postwar consumer culture and an insidious conformism were coming to define the mainstream of American cultural life. This was the era of the Red Scare and the Hollywood blacklist. It was an era of rigid gender roles, Father Knows Best, and suburban sprawl. The angst of this era was beautifully captured in the films of director Nicholas Ray. He gave us Rebel without a Cause, In a Lonely Place, and Bigger Than Life—all iconic treatises on men at war with themselves and the people who love them.
Nicolas Ray knew something about men in crisis. He had a gift for getting inside the heads of men who were alienated from themselves as well as from those around them. Bigger Than Life ranks as probably his darkest examination into the mind of a man falling apart. To add subversion to the proceeding pathos the main character’s drug-fueled anger and paranoia are best understood as violent psychological manifestations of the quintisentially American obsessions with success, strength, and a patriarchal family structure in which both mother and child are rendered subservient to the whims of an angry, domineering, and vengeful father. In other words, Ray is taking on the 1950s themselves and painting a portrait of a deranged society confined by roles that leave no room for humanity.
James Mason plays a gently effete school teacher named Ed Avery who has a wife named Lou (played by Barbara Rush) and an adorable son named Richie (Christopher Olsen). After finding out that he is severely ill Ed agrees to go on an experimental regimen of cortisone. He gets better from using the drug but then becomes addicted to it and, at the same time, unhinged in his obsession with controlling his family. His fatherly tenderness is replaced by hysterical demands on his wife and child who grow increasingly alienated from him. His new behavior is like a satire of a mean 1950s dad-type. He is particularly hard on his son as he lays expectations for “success” on him that border on the sadistic.
Walter Matthau plays a family friend who steps in at the last minute when Ed, completely delusional and scary at this point, tries to do the unthinkable and kill his own child. As he reads from the Bible with a knife in his hand, deranged circus music plays in the background. It moves into horror movie territory until Ray pulls back with a pseudo happy ending.
Bigger Than Life isn’t one of Ray’s most famous films but it fits thematically with them (Rebel Without a Cause, In a Lonely Place, On Dangerous Ground) and certainly represents the farthest that he went with the theme of male angst and the rifts of alienation that can occur within a family. It’s a dark film but one as emblematic of the 1950s as any film I can think of.
Though ignored at the time of its release, Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life is now recognized as one of the great American films of the 1950s. When a friendly, successful suburban teacher and father (James Mason, in one of his most indelible roles) is prescribed cortisone for a painful, possibly fatal affliction, he grows dangerously addicted to the experimental drug, resulting in his transformation into a psychotic and ultimately violent household despot. This Eisenhower-era throat-grabber, shot in expressive CinemaScope, is an excoriating take on the nuclear family; that it came in the day of Father Knows Best makes it all the more shocking - and wildly entertaining.
- Starring: Walter Matthau, Christopher Olsen, Robert Simon, James Mason, Barbara Rush
- Format: Color, Dolby, NTSC, Widescreen
- Language: English
- Aspect Ratio: 2.55:1
- Number of Discs: 1
- Rating: Not Rated
- Label: The Criterion Collection
- Release Date: 03/23/2010
- Run Time: 95 minutes
- Catalogue #: 507
- Audio commentary featuring critic Geoff Andrew
- Profile of Nicholas Ray (1977), a half-hour television interview with the director
- New video appreciation of Bigger Than Life with author Jonathan Lethem
- New video interview with Susan Ray
- Plus: A booklet featuring an essay by critic and video maker B. Kite