Nicholas Ray, USA, 1956
Nicolas Ray's "Bigger Than Life" is full of wonderful detail: the bright yellows of the taxi cabs; Richie painfully declaring how he hates his father whilst sporting a milk moustache; the way Barbara Rush’s orange dress seems to glow and tint the house interiors as psychosis takes flame at home; the use of light (as Jim Jarmusch notes: from Mason’s first fall with the lamp, the lighting is overhead for his high moods and low for his dark mania); the subtle and not so subtle use of mirrors. It is full of unforgettable scenes: the shopping for dress which at first seems an act of adoration but is more a "Vertigo" act of male control; the PTA meeting evolving into a scathing attack on the apparent intellectual and moral deficiency of children; the slow homework session from hell…
This simultaneously gorgeous and troubling portrait of domestic America always on the verge appears to be a pet project for James Mason, who not excels in the lead role but also produced. He is Ed Avery, a fair but troubled teacher who agrees to be treated by a new "miracle drug" - cortisone - when diagnosed with a fatal illness. The psychological effects on Avery is one of those tales of household despair, anguish and torment that so easily falls into weak soap operatics, but Ray’s direction and the screenplay by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum uses this to explore the precarious fabric and stability of American society. Based on Berton Rouche’s case study that appeared in "The New Yorker", the melodrama is the means of this exploration, rather than an end in itself. Aside from Mason, Barbara Rush and Christopher Olsen also give exceptional performances as his wife and son, carrying their own perspective. She represents a woman who could far exceed her status, but seems to have been coerced into her role as an actively ideal Fifties housewife. The son has an Oedipal struggle of his own. It is with these strong side conflicts that the film achieves richness, not simple allowing Avery’s mental breakdown to define the drama. Much of this is accessorised with a wealth of loaded symbolism - the football; the banister; clothing; scissors, etc.
That the composition and cinematography is so exemplary, rich and gorgeous would make this melodrama exceptional alone, but that it turns out to be a scathing attack on any American institution it notices makes "Bigger Than Life" a genuinely resonant and disturbing work. Teachers are borderline psychotics and treated miserably by the establishment; doctors speak like educational films and patronise and prescribe seemingly without fully understanding their true power; the respectable American life is "dull" and founded on repressed discontent and past glories (his football carries a lot of symbolism; she could go back to her career if she wanted rather than homemaking); the Bible fuels delusion and mania… None of this is resolved by the inevitable closing family embrace, which in itself doesn’t quell the overbearing shadow of Death that set all this off in the first place.