God, Men and Monsters: Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life

In 1956, Nicholas Ray made a film that was such a departure from the rest of his work that people still speak of it today.  Just one year after Rebel Without a Cause (a film that did remarkably well, snagging not one, not two, but three Academy Award nominations), Ray had leverage. As a result, he could do a film based on drug addiction and, more or less, get away with it. Sure, films had been done about drug addiction before (in the same year as Rebel, Otto Preminger’s Man with the Golden Arm had been nominated for three awards) but none had utilized drugs and addiction in quite the same way; ripping open the very fabric of the American dream, showing it to be what it really was: an American nightmare.

Did it do well at the box office? Not entirely. Is it interesting anyway? You bet!

Bigger Than Life starred, was produced and co-written by James Mason, and like many other films or television programs of the time, it was “based upon a real incident.” In 1955,  New Yorker magazine had published an article entitled “Ten Feet Tall” which was penned by a medical journalist named Berton Roueche. Shortly thereafter, this particular entry of their “Annals of Medicine” column became translated into Nicholas Ray’s epic, full-color CinemaScope piece, Bigger Than Life (1956). The originating article is a familiar story- a cautionary tale about the horrors of drug addiction and how it can destroy a family from the inside out. Nicholas Ray’s film, on the other hand, was much less polite (if addiction could ever be called polite). It skinned American suburban life like an animal and revealed it to be the diseased and fractured monster that it truly is, underneath all that smooth so-called “perfection.”

I would argue that,  in many ways, Bigger Than Life could be viewed as a horror film. It functions on fear, ideas of masculinity and the monstrous and postulates that true terror is catalyzed by the volcanic eruptions of a figure whose conflicts are drawn out by a severe chemical addiction. The lighting, color use and Joseph MacDonald’s cinematography only serve to enhance this, and the fact that it is a CinemaScope film makes it even more horrifying with every frame. As you watch this film, both the narrative and the visual sensibility will tell you that it lives  up to the title- this film really is Bigger Than Life.

I was lucky enough to see this film at the TCM Film Festival this past year, complete with a Q&A with Robert Osbourne and the leading lady, Barbara Rush (who was simply fantastic and looks like a million bucks!). I have to say- for the first viewing of this film, view it big or as big as possible. I’ve seen many other ‘Scope films that look great but didn’t use the lens as a narrative tool. Nicholas Ray knew what he was working with, knew what he could do, and he did it.

Because of the sheer magnificence of the CinemaScopic vision, a shot that would normally be passed off as simply the "happy car ride" becomes almost oppressively happy due to its epically large and colorful flavor. While the tone of the film at this point is a happy one, it should be noted that the claustrophobic intensity of this shot is not accidental.

The shattered masculine image plays a huge part in the narrative. This shot emphasizes it even further by showing him staring at his own reflection in a vulnerable physical stance.

Mirrors are powerful objects in this film, and in this scene more than any other. Once more, we have the glory of the sophisticated technologies ('Scope lenses had only been being used for about 3 years when they made this film, so it was still pretty new!) to hammer in the point even more clearly: he knows he has become the monster, and he doesn't like it. But, like every other chemically-involved-monster (Jekyll/Hyde, Invisible Man), he bought a one-way ticket, and there's no going back now.

While this film could have been shot in black and white and an alternative aspect ratio, this shot is a perfect example of the power that Ray had by making the choices that he did. His experience in black and white and noir enhanced the shadowy/terror-like aspects while still wanting to keep the colored/lit bits for a balance. This is one of the most terrifying and visually stunning scenes in the film. This forced perspective shot also underscores the "Mason-as-Monster" theme, seeing as forced perspective shots are not unfamiliar territory within monster films!

Rush said that this film has been shown at various Film Noir festivals. I could see that, however I am still more on the side of the horror genre when it comes to Bigger Than Life. Without spoiling too much of the film, I would like to  bring up a few issues through which I believe that this film can be ultimately defensible as a piece of horror.

Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931), The Invisible Man (James Whale, 1933) and most versions of Dr Jekyll & Mr. Hyde are recognized as parts of the horror film canon. They helped to establish a visual and narrative iconography which, in turn, built the monster world.  I would contend that in certain ways, Bigger Than Life is meant to inspire just as much terror as any of these monsters ever did. Nicholas Ray’s film plays to those monsters and their individual characteristics, features and attributes. The “monster” in Bigger Than Life calls up some of our greatest fears which were revealed in the early 30’s by the great horror masters and places them squarely in front of us, just as Whale or Fleming did. Horror is a device that exposes the ugliest and most devastating issues within society and the humans living within that society. By that definition, I believe that Ray has succeeded in making a horror film.

In Bigger Than Life, James Mason’s character, Ed Avery, becomes less human the greater his addiction. At first, the cortisone appears to be having a positive effect on his life- he’s stronger, has more energy, is filled with enthusiasm for life and everything in it. As the pill-popping increases, Ed Avery seems to disappear and The Monster comes out. The Monster abuses his wife and child, gets into virulent arguments at the workplace and eventually has himself convinced that there is only one way that this series of events that he has put in motion can go- it may not be good, but it’s right because The Monster couldn’t be wrong.

Meanwhile, his suffering wife Lou is playing a dual role- the victim of the nightmarish happenings as well as the “Fritz” or lab assistant in the creation of The Monster. In her own addiction to codependent behavior, she is no better than her husband with the exception that she finally comes to terms with her own “monstrous” behavior and, in doing so, is able to try to effect change on her son’s behalf (as well as her own, I would imagine).

Ed Avery’s flipping between personalities and wild unpredictability gives him somewhat of a Jekyll/Hyde sense. While we are aware that it is dependent upon the pills he is taking, the levels which he reaches throughout the film are so grand that by the climax of the film, it has almost become  Grand Guignol-type behavior, shown by his ludicrous propositions to Lou. I think that this may be one of the main reasons I’ve heard the film referred to as “campy” or “cultish.” By the time the tension has built, the surreal energy in combination with the elaborate colors and shot structure make it seem almost…too much. And yet, I don’t believe that it is too much. From where I sat, the ending seemed like a nightmare bathed in a fever-dream, but one that you may not awaken from.

Terror, pure and simple. And the terror came from the multi-faced monster of addiction itself. Addiction- addiction to substances, addiction to conformity and normalcy against the betterment of one’s family (Lou’s line “We musn’t let Bob think Ed is still sick!” gave me the chills), addiction to abuse, addiction to codependency and, significantly, addiction to power.

In James Whale’s The Invisible Man, the title character (played by Claude Rains), states simply, “The drugs I took seemed to light up my brain. Suddenly I realized the power I held, the power to rule, to make the world grovel at my feet. ” If one were to look at Ed Avery in Bigger Than Life, he seems to be saying precisely the same thing. What is most terrifying in Nicholas Ray’s film (moreso than Whale’s, in my mind) is that there is always a certain level of uncertainty that the chemical supplement is actually the  issue in the long run. Sure, Avery’s an addict. Sure, he’s getting more crazy and abusive due to the drugs. But when he looks at himself in the mirror in the shots shown above, and sees the shattered image, there is something that he recognizes- a fractured Monster Image that he sees with ultimate clarity. Somehow, this made for an even more uneasy scene. What if that Monster was really there behind the man the whole time? That kind of ambiguity is the scariest there is. It means that perhaps it isn’t so much that the drug creates the Monster, but reminds the Monster of what he knows is there all along.

Bigger Than Life‘s goals were to present a picture of the American family and suburban life that wasn’t quite standard for the time. To a certain extent, this trajectory was a little like Billy Wilder’s Ace in The Hole, due to its cynicism and biting social critique. While the film may not have fared well in the box-office back then, it has more than made up for that now in the fact that the horror and nightmarish-ness of each frame remain as singularly beautiful and terrifying as they were in 1956. Thank you, Mr. Ray, for this exquisite vision into the depths!