Ray Vision

01.01.09

Nicholas Ray, Bigger than Life, 1956, still from a color film in 35 mm. Ed Avery (James Mason) and Richie Avery (Christopher Olsen).


JUST AS THE WHEELERS fetishize Paris in Revolutionary Road (2008), posters depicting France and Italy fill the Averys’ suburban home in Nicholas Ray’s Bigger than Life (1956). The decor announces, and perhaps also sublimates, the desire of Ed Avery (James Mason) to broaden his life. Households are torn apart in both films, and no one makes it to Europe. Controversial in its time as an apologue on drug addiction, Nicholas Ray’s midcentury melodrama actually speaks more to the hidden manias of its staid decade than to the dangers of pharmaceuticals.

Ed, a small-town teacher, complains to his wife, Lou (Barbara Rush), that their life is “dull.” But when his doctors prescribe an experimental drug for his artery inflammation, he turns into a raving tyrant. Raging against the “atmosphere of petty domesticity” around him, he resolves to drag his school out of its student-coddling mediocrity. He bullies his young son into improving at math and football, then decides he would rather kill the boy than allow him to slouch complacently toward the undifferentiated life.

Mason, famous for his sinister charm and kingly baritone, is an odd casting choice. Yet Bigger than Life puts forth a vivid critique of, a Nietzschean assault on, Rockwellian banality. Ray was reportedly reluctant to identify the drug behind Ed’s madness by name. After all, the dangerous side effects associated with cortisone (according to the New Yorker article that inspired the film) had, thanks to dosage adjustments, more or less disappeared by the time Bigger than Life came out.

Cortisone, then, is a mere catalyst. Similar to the barium that Ed swallows in one scene so that doctors grouped around an X-ray monitor can examine his plumbing, the drug facilitates a certain transparency: It enables Ed to see through the scrim of habit while simultaneously exposing his own inner workings. Of course, it also transforms him into a despot. Ray’s French admirers rushed to interpret Ed’s metamorphosis in positive terms. “He is literally possessed by a sort of demon of lucidity,” Eric Rohmer wrote. François Truffaut’s reading was even more romantic: “[Ray’s] hero is an escapee from the hell of logic.”

American audiences greeted the film with somewhat less enthusiasm, and although Bigger than Life makes it clear that Ray’s socially conscious oeuvre hasn’t aged as well as that of, say, Elia Kazan or Douglas Sirk, the film showcases the director’s pioneering use of color. Ray’s chromatic sensibility is perhaps more celebrated in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), but the hues are just as brilliant here, as is his knack for the glorious sprawl of CinemaScope. Ray, a trained architect, once described the horizontal line as “the most obvious influence” of his earlier apprenticeship with Frank Lloyd Wright. You can see it in Bigger than Life, a window on a boxed-in era.

Nicholas Ray’s Bigger than Life plays January 2–8 at Film Forum in New York. For more information, click here.

Darrell Hartman