November 1, 2012
Bigger Than Life – US, 1956
I have no doubt that Nicolas Ray’s cautionary 1956 tale, Bigger Than Life, played much better upon its initial release. Here is a film that centers around the potential side effects of what was then a relatively new and untested drug, cortisone. Therefore, the story it weaves likely had an urgency that it lacks today. Cortisone is mentioned at some point during practically every NFL broadcast, and rarely, if ever, is there ever a mention of any of its possible side effects. Because of this, I suspect contemporary audiences will view Bigger Than Life as coming from the same over-the-top gene pool as a film like Reefer Madness. To be fair to the film, then, it should be said that the risks mentioned in Bigger Than Life are real. According to Wikipedia, the drug’s possible side effects include anxiety, depression, and osteoporosis. It’s certainly nothing to snicker at.
The film stars James Mason as a well respected school teacher named Ed Avery who moonlights a few hours a week as a dispatch operator for a cab company. Of course, he doesn’t tell his wife this because, according to him, she would think it was below him. In the film’s opening scene, we see Ed sitting behind his desk wincing in pain. Later he learns that the pain is the result of a rare problem with his arteries. The condition, he’s told, is fatal. He’ll live at most a year – that is, unless he’s willing to take what is described as a “miracle” drug, cortisone. Described that way, it’s no wonder he takes it. In an important scene, we watch as Ed goes through treatment to get his health under control. The words in his chart say it all: “Cortisone up. Pain down.”
Upon his release from the hospital, he’s told to take one dose of cortisone every six hours and to monitor his behavior for any sudden changes in his mood or emotions. If they should change, he’s told, it may be a sign that the drug is doing more than it should. Now, in a film with such a set-up, there’s an unwritten rule that states that whatever change does occur has to do so in stages. There must first be changes that are positive. This is so there can be a reason for them to escape detection. Therefore, they should be positive changes that seem to be in response to a near-death experience, the kind that a man with a reinvigorated sense of purpose would understandably have. Soon, however, there must be more negative changes, ones that denotes a sinister or egotistical streak. It is these changes that alert the people around him that something out of the ordinary is afloat. Once these changes take place, it’s only a matter of time before they become dangerous, perhaps even homicidal.
Bigger Than Life does not deviate from this well-established motif, and yet the way it takes places, it’s hard to accept that those people that know Ed Avery would stand around and do nothing as he slowly devolves into a self-centered, pompous jerk capable of exploding at any moment. In fact, the other person who appears concerned that something is wrong with him is his friend Wally Gibbs, played by Walter Matthau. In once scene, Ed tells a group of parents that they’re “breeding a race of moral midgets” and talks of their children as if they completely lacked intelligence. How he isn’t suspended or asked to take leave is beyond me. Soon he’s talking about having grand ideas and understanding things that normal people cannot, as well as screaming at his wife that he’s outgrown her.
Ed’s wife Lou is played by Barbara Rush, and Rush is one of the film’s bright spots. She is tasked with making viewers believe that a woman in her position wouldn’t run for the doctor at the first sign of trouble, and in this, she succeeds. In fact, Lou seems caught between a rock and a hard place. If she goes back to work, there’s no one to look after her increasingly irrational husband, and if she alerts the doctor, Ed will be taken away, and there will be no money to pay his medical expenses. Her only option, she reasons, is to ride it out and hope that Ed gets better on his own. It’s the wrong choice, but it’s easy to see why she makes it.
Unfortunately, the film devolves from realism into sheer lunacy. Mason, a fine actor in A Star is Born and Lolita, here is undone by a script that he co-wrote. Ed’s regression, instead of seemingly increasingly alarming, begins to be comical, and a scene in which he makes deductions based on the milk residue on the side of a pitcher seems more ridiculous than suspenseful. Only in one scene does Ray adequately display Ed’s potential for destruction, and that scene owes as much to Ray’s skills as a cameraman as it does to the actors in the scene.
Having been made in the 1950’s, it’s obvious how Bigger Than Life will end, and yet, what is surprising is how much the film tries to weasel its way out of the predicament it finds itself in. I say this because in the film’s final moments, it must take a stand, yet like many films from the 1950’s, it takes the simplest one. Or does it? Should we take the doctors’ words at face value, or are they just playing a clever shell game, diverting attention from their own negligence and culpability? It’s hard to say. It’s possible that the film, like The Lost Weekend, ends the way it does because that is how audiences, as well as the censors, expected it to end. Whatever the reason, the ending, like much of the film that precedes it, is a bit of a letdown. There’s an interesting story buried deep within Bigger Than Life. It just wasn’t the one that made it onto the big screen. (on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection)
2 and a half stars