Bigger Than Life (Ray, 1956)

The films of Nicholas Ray feel far ahead of their time. Bigger Than Life, his brutal look at addiction to prescription drugs, follows Ed Avery (the timeless James Mason), a hardworking school teacher who battles a rigid dependancy on cortisone. Forced to take the drug after doctors tell him it’s the only way to save his life from inflamed lungs, Avery begins to abuse, first displaying signs of mild exuberance, then aggression, then full blown mania. This unpredictable psychosis begins to disrupt his family life (wife Lou and son Richie get the brunt of the verbal attacks), making a monster out of this once wonderful man and a psychological war zone out of the traditional American home. It’s a disturbing tale, more so now than I presume it was in the 1950’s. With prescription drugs now the vice of choice for young teens in America, and the root of many health care issues in terms of corporate marketing, Bigger Than Life shows a scary slice of Americana that feels amazingly current, as if Ray tapped into the need for control, security, and pain free life-style Americans crave. The mise-en-scene exudes a longing, seen through deep rich reds and yellows, for this sense of fundamental safety, something Ed attempts to give his family, then violently forces on them by the film’s end. It’s no coincidence Ray uses Noir aesthetics in the final few scenes, shadows of bars and low angle photography creating a fatalist outlook for Ed and his family. It’s the end of a long familial struggle, the consequences finally revealing themselves through visuals. But who’s to blame? Certainly not Avery or his family according to Ray. They are just the test subjects caught in the middle of a guessing game by doctors and a complete disavowal of difference or acting out by the community at large. No one understands Ed’s outbursts, and more disturbingly, not a soul thinks to question his behavior enough to challenge his authority and get him help. Bigger Than Life as a title both refers to the high Ed feels when wrapped up in his cortisone binge, but also the illusion of cheating death through the use of artificial drugs. Nicholas Ray’s film is not a social melodrama, but a horror film with social implications. His work often blurs the lines of genre, and Bigger Than Life beautifully displays this complex style of filmmaking.

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