Having only seen Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause and none of his other films I feel as if I wasn’t necessarily prepared as much as students of Ray’s work would like me to be for Bigger than Life. However, such a scenario could cause for interesting discussion seeing how there is a lot more beneath the surface of Bigger than Life than I originally saw the first time and only came to notice after listening to the included audio commentary by Geoff Andrew, author of “The Films of Nicholas Ray” and included interview featurettes and archived television interview with the director. It was also strange how one played off the other and contradictions can even be found, but a bit more on that in a second.
The film is based on an article from The New Yorker by Berton Roueche and published in September 1955 (download it here) centering on a New York school teacher whose fatal arterial inflammation was managed through the use of cortisone. However, it wasn’t an instant fix as the man began suffering from side effects causing him to feel as if he was “bigger than life,” but after treatment and proper dosing he survived and went on to live a happy life. Ray’s film takes this story and ramps it up several degrees and while some may view it as an indictment of cortisone, it is in fact more of a personal story of addiction, but as Ray’s wife, Susan, says in an interview featurette on this disc, it was a comparison Ray wouldn’t admit to until several years later.
In December 2008, The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody wrote about the film as this same restored version, presented by Criterion, was hitting NYC theaters. He called it “one of the greatest views of the hidden fractures of family life and the demons that, for some, remain happily below the surface.” He references a college student he once showed the film to who called it “the most frightening movie he’d ever seen.” It’s a rather exaggerated viewpoint and one I would use with an asterisk saying, “Results not typical.” However, the possible still remains.
Knowing nothing about this film before I put it in the player, it first appears to be a typical 1950s, “Leave it to Beaver” family drama. What could possibly happen here? The father has a heart attack and the family faces rough times? Perhaps he gets laid off. I mean, he’s already working two jobs and now he appears to have some sort of medical ailment, those have to be the options available… right? This is where the film throws an unsuspecting audience for a loop.
Starring James Mason as Ed Avery — schoolteacher, husband and father — he begins suffering from a severe inflammation of the arteries. Spooky x-rays are the first sign this is much more than a family-in-trouble drama and things escalate from there, reaching serious heights as it becomes highly possible anything can and will happen. Had told me how the film was going to end after the first ten minutes I would have flat out called you a liar, but Ray pulls it off and as things progress, and if you read that article I linked to above, you will see the elements of Ed’s behavior aren’t as exaggerated as they may seem.
In terms of supplemental material, the best feature to start with would be the interview featurette with Susan Ray. It is the most straightforward approach to the film and its director. She discusses her reaction to the film and her husband’s dedication to cinema as well as comparisons to his own life. Things get a bit more interesting when you get to author Jonathan Lethem’s featurette as he discusses his own personal theories of the film and their meaning.
Lethem, while interesting and willing to reveal some interesting theories, is a bit exaggerated at times. One example has him saying, “There’s that glaring hot water heater in the kitchen, just sitting there ticking, almost like some sort of a bomb saying, ‘Why can’t you hide me?'” While the heater certainly stands out, it’s not ticking and there is no sense of it being a bomb. It’s this kind of exaggeration that needs to be muted because Lethem has far more interesting views on other aspects of the film.
Susan Ray discusses her husband’s own addiction, which he was having trouble confronting, opening the door for the more personal correlations between art and artist. This is where Lethem becomes valuable. Not only does he discuss the film’s commentary on the current state of suburbia (as does Susan Ray), but he also brings up theories of bisexuality, a theory that bleeds into Andrew’s commentary and then shows its face in the final feature, a 1977, 30-minute interview session with Ray called “Profile of Nicholas Ray.”
The “Profile of Nicholas Ray” interview is conducted by Cliff Jahr and for the most part focuses on Rebel Without a Cause, but when Jahr isn’t getting his questions slapped back in his face (some of his questions are seriously flawed, if not his inability to coherently ask them) he gets some revealing answers. However, I recommend this be the last feature you watch as everything seems to build to this one moment even though it is listed first on the film’s supplement menu.
Overall, Bigger than Life was a surprise for me. After watching it I wasn’t necessarily moved one way or another. It was good, but didn’t floor me as is often the case with Criterion titles. However, the supplemental features add a lot to a film that I think most people would look at nowadays and say, “Cortisone? Really? He’s addicted to cortisone?” This day and age we are dealing with addictions to just about everything and our thoughts on cortisone don’t exactly run to the idea of being a habit-forming drug. It’s once you set your mind right and realize the year it was made that things begin to clear up and allow you to achieve an understanding of what the film seeks out to do and you begin to appreciate it on a higher level. I can’t say I would immediately recommend it as a buy, but I would certainly recommend a rental and perhaps you’ll find it’s a title to add to your shelf.