Calling Nicholas Ray movies overheated is like calling a Cormac McCarthy novel a little intense. At his best Ray inhabited such a feverish plane of intense melodrama that he made Douglas Sirk seem staid.
Bigger Than Life is perhaps the purest expression of this in Ray’s canon (Johnny Guitar being the possible exception). Ray’s films often move with the warped intensity of a drug fiend (doing a lot of Coke tends to do that) and by actually bringing drugs into the narrative in Bigger Then Life, it’s as if he freed himself to take everything as far as he could.
James Mason plays a nineteen fifties father and school teacher who starts experiencing an ill defined illness that would surely kill him (to amuse myself I will from here on refer to this disease as Bone-itis), unless he starts taking then miracle drug Cortisone. Before long Mason is back on his feet, apparently cured of Bone-itis. Unfortunately he’s now also saying things like “Childhood is a congenital disease.” “God was wrong.” And other opinions one did not voice in polite society circa 1956.
The thing that makes this all so bracing is how unapologetically ambiguous Ray’s sympathies are. As Mason’s sadism increases Ray’s sympathy with him eventually decreases but it’s pretty clear that from the beginning Ray’s sympathy’s are right there with him.
The trick that Ray does is in rooting Mason’s frustrations before he ever even takes the drug. It’s clear that this isn’t something that has been brought on by the drug, but something released by it. Take this exchange with his wife, mind you this is before Mason has taken so much as a pill.
“You think they’re what?
“Well so are we.”
“What did you say?”
“So are we. You are, I am. Let’s face it we’re dull. (…) Can you tell me one thing that was said or done by anyone here tonight that was funny, startling, imaginative?”
A man satisfied on a deep spiritual and intellectual level by American Suburbia gentility this is not.
What the Cortisone gives Mason is an excuse to vent his mind on God, momism, public education, civic duty, America and all the other things that fifties America held sacrosanct. In doing so finds his friends and neighbor’s reacting to him in the same way the same characters usually react to the flying saucers that land in the Sci Fi pictures of the same era. It’s not merely embarrassment or anger at the breaking of a taboo. It’s abject horror. This is not the way things are. Bigger Than Life is a film I truly wish I could see in context. From such a distance the film can’t help but be a bit removed, but back then this thing must have been a hand grenade.
Ray is of course one of the era’s greatest visual stylists. Preternaturally skilled at composition and one of the greatest users of color ever, as Mason’s behavior becomes more and more erratic, Ray’s style gets more and more intense and by the time the film climaxes in a determined attempt at filicide it has become nigh unbearable and if you don’t think a fight scene between James Mason and Walter Mathieu (in a great “What the hell is he doing here?” performance) can’t be squirmingly intense you’re about to get proved wrong.
Bigger Than Life stumbles at the end, with the most tacked on happy ending I’ve ever seen, and a paternalistic coda directly before it that is even more troublesome (Silly woman of course you have to keep giving your husband the things that drove him insane.) But it can’t wash away the sour taste of quiet desperation boiling over. Like the coda in Psycho (another film about a mild mannered man acting very badly) the attempt to smooth things over into an acceptable answer is so pathetic as to almost be touching. Once something is articulated it can’t be unarticulated. It is impossible to quietly slip the lid on Pandora’s Box and walk away whistling.