The African Queen is the most celebrated DVD debut this week, but I’d argue that Bigger Than Life (Criterion) is the most important. Never released on VHS, rarely seen on TV or cable (and even then only in pan-and-scan versions) or revived in the dwindling repertory circuit, this film has not received its due as a masterpiece of American social drama in large part because it’s been so damnably difficult to see. Criterion’s much-appreciated release now resolves that part of the problem with an edition that celebrates the film with due respect.
Ostensibly a drama about prescription drug misuse and abuse and drawn from an article in “The New Yorker,” this portrait of a grade-school teacher and middle class father (played by James Mason, who also produced and helped develop the project) is as much about adult male masculinity and responsibility as a husband and father, and the pressure on him to live up to the ideal, as Rebel Without a Cause is about the emotional realities of being an American teenager. Ed Avery (Mason, playing an American schoolteacher without even trying to mask his distinctive British accent) is already suffering (secretly and silently) from spasms of pain in his hands and back while he (also secretly) moonlights a few afternoons a week as a taxi dispatcher to make ends meet. He’s afraid to complain about the pain because he can’t afford to be sick. His wife, Lou (Barbara Rush), is just as anxious and just as nervous to say anything about it; she’s afraid he’s having an affair. And though they laugh it off when they come clean, that anxiety is never far from their suburban existence.
The story follows Ed striving to keep up a strong front until he literally is felled by the pain and diagnosed with a rare disease of the arteries. The good news is that there is “a miracle cure.” Cortisone. The bad news: “Once in a while, Cortisone gets tricky.” Indeed it does. Hit with the emotional rollercoaster of the drug, he’s too ashamed to admit to the doctor about the rocky road to recovery, and too afraid of more medical costs of a relapse (“I can’t get sick again. What will happen to you and Richie if I fall down again?”), so he self-medicates, upping his intake and riding the high to terrifying heights of egotism, self-importance, arrogance, contempt for his “lesser” and eventually an elevated sense of moral authority.
A classic business graphic—the jagged line on the x-y axis that usually measures profit—charts his pain management in the hospital. Ray and Mason turn to equally visual but more dramatically resonant cues to chart the distortions in Ed’s personality on the elevated dosage, building from small clues (he resorts to smoking in the early stages, affecting an aristocratic pose for fun early on that he adopts without the pose in later stages) to dynamic expressionist imagery, such as his jagged, split reflection in a broken mirror and the massive shadow he casts on the wall as he drills math problems into his son, Richie (Christopher Olsen). His presence is more like a literal monster in the home, often dominating his family from on high on the stairs or looking down from the second floor. Ray, a master of widescreen filmmaking, beautifully isolates and distances characters in the horizontal frame while Mason progressively dominates the screen, finally physically looming from above. Yet the film’s most resonant image may be his midnight crying fit, curled up in the den and sobbing to himself, a scene that evokes depression, fear, shame and his complete helplessness in a situation out of his control. This isn’t some stoic show of emotion but a complete breakdown at the mercy of runaway emotions that he can’t contain or even process, and this scene of male vulnerability is almost unique in its era, as brave and bracing a confession you’ll see in American cinema.
I’ve seen Bigger Than Life three or four times in the past thirty years, pretty much every chance I had to see it on the screen (twice in 35mm widescreen), and been impressed by Mason’s portrait of middle-class anxiety and ambition unleashed by the dramatic device of the wonder drug gone wrong. This time through, however, I was startled by the anxiety of Lou, the loyal and supportive wife whose unfailing support becomes almost cringing subservience. Scared to lose Ed when he becomes so arrogant and packs his bags, nervous to contradict him, and always putting off getting help for fear it will be seen by him as some sort of betrayal, she is a portrait of a victim taking the guilt upon herself, complicated by an equally defining fear of appearances. How will his weakness look to others? And then there’s the unspoken fact that his teacher’s salary is not enough to raise a family even in modest means (they can’t even afford to replace the failing water heater). The whole image of middle class security is presented, without comment, as a façade kept alive by white lies and social smiles while they scramble behind closed doors to hold it all together.
The film is a tricky mix of glossy Technicolor realism and elevated expressionism that feels both marvelously classic and aggressively modern. In an scene early in Ed’s recovery, he turns his towel and bathrobe into an ascot and robe, playing the Lord in front of the bathroom mirror. It doesn’t just evoke his aspirations to money and class and affluence, it quotes the legacy of his previous movie roles as roles, something to which Ed (as a mere schoolteacher) can only fantasize. The film’s most harrowing scene (which I’ll try not to spoil in any detail) is capped by the line (delivered like a proclamation) “God was wrong!,” a moment that has brought laughter from contemporary audiences. It’s no joke, however, and Mason follows up the line with shocking preparations that literally toss the Bible to the floor: the man has placed himself above God and the basic moral laws of the Bible. And while the film takes pains to put all the blame on the drug, and specifically the misuse of an otherwise life-saving drug, the film leaves us with the unsettling realization that those feelings must have existed in some form before the drug, which elevated and twisted them. No prescribed Hollywood happy ending can wipe away what he’s done and what they’ve been through. The red danger light outside his hospital room is shut off and the doctors walk out on the family’s healing embrace, but the red of Richie’s jacket (a junior version of the one worn by James Dean in Ray’s Rebel Without Cause) suggests that the danger is far from over. All the forgiving hugs can’t wipe away the look of realization that settles into Ed’s face as the enormity of his actions come back to him and the financial anxieties are far from over.
Criterion licensed the film from 20th Century Fox in what I see as a mutually beneficial arrangement, as a Criterion release by definition makes a whole class of buyers sit up and take notice of a title they may not have noticed otherwise while Fox can see a title that otherwise would have been just another release for them become a cultural conversation piece under Criterion’s aegis. Plus, Criterion does the mastering themselves (always top notch and this is no exception – this is beautiful!) and takes it upon themselves to fill in the supplements, whether archival or original. This release features both. In terms of archival, there’s a “Profile of Nicholas Ray,” a half-hour TV interview with the director with Cliff Jahr made for New York Public TV in 1977. For the new material, we have commentary by film critic Geoff Andrew, a new video interview with Susan Ray (the director’s widow) and the 27-minute interview/presentation “Jonathan Lethem on Bigger Than Life.” Lethem (one of my favorite contemporary authors and a brilliant alchemist of stories through genre mixing) loves the film and has plenty of insights, both culturally and stylistically, from Mason’s own identity as a screen actor playing the epitome of American middle class life to the odd figure cut by Walter Matthau as a gym teacher with little apparent interest in women.