This year I borrowed my friend Laura’s idea and made a list of 10 Classics to see for the first time in 2015. To get even more new movies into our lives, we’ve been jointly viewing/reviewing titles from each other’s lists. This time we’re looking at one of my picks, Nicholas Ray’s BIGGER THAN LIFE (1956).
As a big James Mason fan I have really been looking forward to watching this movie, and in terms of his performance, the work of the other actors, and the film’s visuals, I was not disappointed. I see why this role is so acclaimed and the film praised as groundbreaking and artful. It’s a tough and disturbing story I won’t want to revisit anytime soon but I appreciate and acknowledge the movie’s quality and impact. Mason plays a teacher, stuck in an unsatisfying middle-class hamster wheel, with never enough money or affection from his wife (Barbara Rush), and too much monotony in his job and social circle. Overwork and “quiet despair” may or may not be the cause of his frequent pains and blackouts, which he soon learns are signs of a serious disease. He may die in a year, and is eager to take the wonder drug cortisone to live without pain for whatever time he has left. The drug makes him more depressed and erratic than he would normally be faced with such news, and his abuse of it leads to full-blown psychosis which ends up with him terrorizing and nearly killing his family.
That brief summary doesn’t begin to describe all the emotions and events found in this film, or all the things one can read in it. Masculinity, domesticity, religion and middle class values are described as “dull,” “petty,” fascist, “sanctimonious,” painted as false or even nightmarish, and most of those views don’t resonate with me. There are almost too many institutions and values being condemned here–the medical profession, the Church, the drug companies, the American Dream, marriage, the rat race, keeping up with the Joneses, consumerism, traditional fatherhood, masculine authority, etc.–which weakens the criticism of any of them.
One of the things I found more meaningful and well-depicted was the life-changing impact of a health crisis in the family and how differently people deal with a sudden awareness that they are mortal and life is short. The shock, the bravado, the fear of looking weak in front of loved ones, especially children, the desire to be pitied, spoiled and indulged, the numbness, the false cheer and confidence, the frayed nerves and stress and unpredictable breaking points; I found these all authentically depicted in Mason’s performance and not one expressed as a false note. He’s grasping at straws, trying to condense all the living, parenting, spending, thinking and expressing that he’ll miss into whatever short time he has left. And it’s complicated by his anger and desire to be bigger than life and overcome death, a defiance felt by the most clear-headed in similar situations.
Mason’s shock and recklessness is worsened by the adverse effects of the cortisone and his abuse of it, so that on top of expected struggles he becomes psychotic, out of reach of anyone’s love and support, and unable to depend on the faith which could help him, and which does help Rush. Mason’s descent and breakdown is mostly linked to the drug in this plot, but his behaviour also has aspects of mental illness, alcoholism or other substance abuse, which makes this film more widely relevant. It’s interesting to pick out which parts of Mason’s downward spiral are really him and his newfound freedom to express himself, and which parts are the psychosis speaking. When he raves at the parent-teacher meeting about feeding kids hogwash about entitlement and self-esteem above all when they need the virtues of hard work, self-discipline and duty, when he wants to cut to the chase, live to the fullest in the moment and add fun and spontaneity to marriage and parenting, he hits on truth. At the same time he descends into bullying, cruelty, paranoia and terrifying insanity: a meltdown over a glass of milk, delusions that have him passing judgment on God and attempting a murder-suicide. Whether he’s a man of burdens, secrets or impulses, Mason is riveting and intense.
Barbara Rush does fine work too, initially suspecting his late nights out are signs of an affair, then having to balance care with fear, sensitivity with discomfort and despair at his change of character and confusing actions. In what ends up a life and death struggle with a madman, she shows an ability to adapt and think fast to ease out of traps and conflicts. Where Mason twists faith and rejects it as wrong, hers serves as a strong anchor and guiding light. Where experts and medicine have failed, she trusts her faith will pull him and the family through whatever may come (once the doctors better watch the prescription). “I want to look on the brighter side,” she says, and tells their son (Christopher Olsen) to “keep loving him with all our hearts.” It’s the best hope in a seemingly happy but still terribly bleak ending that gives Mason the choice of either dying in pain or depending on meds that steal his sanity and torture his family. In all the turmoil of the climax, it’s easy to miss how carefully she picks the Bible up off the floor after the episode that nearly wrecks their home and their lives.
Such a dark and heavy subject matter is made pretty and colourful, which is a big part of creating the tension between appearance and reality, public and private. The placement of objects and symbols invite and reward close study and nothing Ray does is accidental. Travel posters are all over the house, and after Mason’s diagnosis stand as painful reminders of unfulfilled dreams and symbols of unattained goals. Bright colours and clever shots strengthen and intensify everything, whether it’s the line of yellow cabs at the company where Mason moonlights after school, the outfits he insists Rush try on at the store, the parade of children exiting the school, the barium X-Ray showing Mason’s insides, the angles and shadows that make him seem “ten feet tall” (the name of the film’s source story) and towering over his boy. Pay close attention to how milk and a football are used to mark changes as the plot unfolds.
I enjoyed touches like the infographic layered over scenes of Mason’s suffering, which show how his pain level decreases in relation to the bigger doses of cortisone. I had to laugh when Mason wonders how in the world his son doesn’t get bored with those western shows and movies; I’ve been asked that a few times. It was fitting to set the climactic fight to amusement ride music on the TV. When Mason enters his son’s bedroom intending to murder him, it’s a horrifying scene, made more so when Mason’s vision is bathed in blood red. I was struck by Ray’s use of that medicine cabinet mirror. First Mason playacts the dandy in the mirror as Rush fills the tub for him. She runs up and down the stairs carrying kettle after kettle (she used all the hot water for the dishes), and after he orders yet another, she snaps, rebels, slams the door shut and shatters the mirror. Soon after, Mason stares at his fractured reflection, his shattered life, his broken potential, different aspects of his public/private image that can’t be reconciled and damage that can’t be repaired. Memorable image and part of a searing, powerful performance that made it worth sitting through a picture filled with pain and misery.
Laura shares her thoughts on BIGGER THAN LIFE here. Just worth adding here that I like her description of it being like looking in a window at an unpleasant scene, and I agree that Walter Matthau was a welcome presence.