May 17, 2010

0 Bigger Than Life (1956)

Country: US
Director: Nicholas Ray

As Bigger Than Life opens, we see the long horizontal façade of a school building stretched across the huge CinemaScope screen. A bell rings, and elementary school students come pouring through the doorway, walk toward the camera, and separate to the left and right as they reach it. Among the last children to leave are three sets of twins—two boys, two girls, and finally a boy and girl—who walk toward the camera without separating. What an appropriate beginning for a movie that is essentially Nicholas Ray's 1950s suburban version of Robert Louis Stevens's classic doppelgänger tale Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, beautifully restored and newly released by Criterion.

The main character is Ed Avery (James Mason), a teacher at the school. With a modern two-story house, attractive wife (Barbara Rush), and son about the same age as his students, he seems to be living the kind of middle-class life found in television sitcoms of the time. But all is not well with the Avery family. Ed is having difficulty making ends meet on his teacher's salary and must supplement his income by working on the sly three afternoons a week as a dispatcher for a local taxi company. More distressingly, he is suffering some kind of major health problem, from time to time clutching his stomach in severe pain, having headaches and dizzy spells, and occasionally even blacking out. When his wife finally persuades him to see a doctor, Ed is diagnosed with Periarteritis nodosa, chronic inflammation of the arteries, a severe condition that if untreated will kill him within a year. Fortunately, a newly released "wonder drug," the steroid cortisone, deals successfully with his symptoms and offers him a hopeful prognosis.

What Ed doesn't realize is that the drug can have severe psychological side effects. He soon begins acting erratically, swinging between euphoria and moodiness. Within weeks he has become a full-blown madman—behaving impulsively, erupting into sudden rages, and exhibiting symptoms of extreme megalomania and paranoia. Subjecting his students and family to tyrannical whims and edicts, he institutes a fanatical reign of terror in his classroom and at home. He pompously tells members of the P.T.A. that their children are spoiled and backward, with the mental development of gorillas. He forces his son to endure a merciless regimen of physical and mental training. He finally announces to his wife that she is his intellectual inferior, that he has "outgrown" her, and that he is leaving her to embark on a lifelong project to write a book that will revolutionize education. The wonder drug has transformed the affable school teacher and loving husband and father into a human monster.

James Mason confronts his monstrous alter ego in the bathroom mirror

Two things lift Bigger Than Life above its occasionally trite plot and its pat conclusion. One is the amazing performance by James Mason, who also produced the film, as Ed Avery, a performance that alone makes the movie well worth seeing. Ed's startling change from a reserved, rather meek man dedicated to his profession and his family into a pill-popping psychotic wracked by delusions of grandeur is unnervingly convincing. As his life spins more and more out of control, he alternates between obliviousness to the behavioral changes taking place in him and, in moments of lucidity, horrified awareness of his rampant mental deterioration. It is a chilling, expertly calibrated performance, one of Mason's very finest and almost certainly the most ambitious of his notable career.

Also impressive is the vision of this suburban horror story created by director Nicholas Ray. Ray studied architecture before turning to a career in films, and strongly evocative interiors are often an important part of his movies. In Bigger Than Life the contrast between the innocuous, rather bland middle-class interior of Ed's house, where much of the film takes place, and his extravagant behavior is a striking one. Yet there are subtle indications of Ed's already existing subconscious dissatisfaction with his conventional life. The distorted shape of the CinemaScope screen, especially noticeable in these interior segments, suggests a personality that already senses the need to expand to fill the empty spaces in its life. The walls of the house, covered in framed maps and travel posters of places like Rome, Paris, and Florence, hint at a desire by Ed to leave behind the ordinariness of his present life for something more fulfilling. The images of doors and doorways that fill the movie echo this same sense of entrapment in present circumstances and the repressed longing to break free. There are literally countless shots of people opening or closing doors, coming through doorways, standing in open doorways or in front of closed doors, or simply photographed from a distance through doorways of all sizes and types. Ray uses all these things to intimate that the changes in Ed's personality are not so much metamorphosis as the unleashing of unconscious urges previously held in check.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the movie is that it is based on an actual case history recounted in the New Yorker by Berton Roueché (1910-1994), a journalist who worked nearly fifty years for the magazine, writing for its "Annals of Medicine" section. The true medical mysteries that form the basis of his articles are fascinating stories of people with mystifying symptoms—many of whom are dismissed as hypochondriacs or told that their problems are psychological and referred to psychiatrists—whose illness is finally diagnosed through the perseverance of an individual doctor or researcher. The several collections of these articles Roueché published are highly recommended, as compellingly readable as the best mystery fiction.


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