Nicholas Ray is not generally considered a canonical director; he’s a deep cuts guy, but he holds a pride of place among the faithful. His films are so unapologetic in their demonic distortion that they seem to decompose the very girders of cinema itself. The films themselves become dangerous. But Ray deserves all the status in the world, for his films were more sincere than arguably any other directors working at the time, or ever. Ray’s films lived with a pure mantra, and arguably the purest mantra of all great directors: cinema should, at its best, be a totally sensory experience, an experiential pang of emotion where story, theme, and character are transmuted into direct experience.
What marks Ray as a great director is the difference between “watch” and “experience”. When we watch a garden-variety good film, we know there to be an emotion because a character vocalizes their emotion through dialogue and the emotion gets picked up in narrative. We watch, with distance, as the character and narrative experience the film’s themes and emotions of choice.
In a Nicholas Ray film, the main character is no longer the focus of the emotion; we do not watch that character shake and rattle. Rather, technique galvanizes theme and the film succumbs to the emotion itself. The celluloid shakes and rattles. The moral and emotional architecture of the film becomes one with editing, composition, and movement. Psychology is divined in color, lighting, and framing. We become one with the characters by virtue of the cinema becoming one with those characters. Every ounce of craft contributes to the construction of a sensory vocalization of the emotions themselves. The senses pummel us, not the characters. We become locked in the film. Ray’s films are not the difference between “watch” and “experience”, so much as they are the difference between “watch” and “survive”. Watching them is an act of survival.
The human story of Bigger Than Life follows everyday American suburban man Ed Avery (James Mason), who is both a devoted father and a schoolteacher who develops blackouts and pain that threatens his entire domesticity and consummately professional, suburban lifestyle. Given a drug, cortisone, Ed recovers and pursues his everyday life to its fullest yet again, until, that is, the danger of drug abuse takes over his life, and likely, the lives of his wife Lou (Barbara Rush) and son Richie (Christopher Olsen) as well.
Adapted with blunt, tactile, venomous efficiency by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum from a medical article that appeared in The New Yorker, the film fell into the hands of one Nicholas Ray. After having just directed James Dean to superstar status with Rebel Without a Cause, Ray had carte blanche to bend cinema to his will. He dropped the ball, commercially speaking, and Bigger Than Life was a critical and commercial failure until it was reevaluated by the French New Wave (Godard was a fan, and once famously said “cinema is Nicholas Ray”). Too late, alas, to do much for Ray’s Hollywood career, but certainly enough to ensure his reputation enshrined to memory among cinephiles decades later.
Deservedly so, I might add. He is not only one of the great American directors, but arguably the best director of the dangerously unhinged rabble-rousing school of blunt, venomous early ’50s filmmakers who overturned Hollywood and sought to bend the corporate monstrosity to its knees. Along with the evolution of world cinema in the decade, these filmmakers largely overtook the Old Hollywood style of consummately professional filmmaking, affording breathing room for more dangerous, pulverizing underground works that would soon become known as exploitation cinema. Previously, the Old Hollywood types had made films to lull the likes of Bigger Than Life’s Ed Avery to sleep with thoughts of gentility in his head. In contrast, the angry young men of the new school, like Ray, wanted to shred Avery to pieces, but only if it meant shredding the society around him even more.
Go ahead and call Bigger Than Life a message movie; it dares you to, and it dares you to reevaluate the message movie in its entirety. It positively eviscerates the gentle, glazed-over, self-congratulatory likes of 1947’s Gentleman’s Agreement (the sort of film Ed Avery and his family might like), a film with a theoretically challenging, radical argument about society and not one iota of radicalism or challenge in any single sliver of its filmmaking. Even something like Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, which derived mileage and gasoline from its noirish filmmaking, pales in comparison to the nasty bile and inflammatory vigor of Ray’s feverish, anti-respectable filmmaking style.
A style helped considerably by his partnership with cinematographer Joseph Macdonald, whose name is also not canonical today, but who always occupied the fringes of this style of hip-firing potboiler and arguably did more to develop the style than any other cinematographer. The hysterical, agitated color in Bigger Than Life owes to Macdonald’s wonderfully nervous idea about how to use color as nightmare kitsch. Day-glo Main Street American suburbia turns into a Technicolor American nightmare. The colors, as they boil and bubble throughout the course of the film, slide from warmly inviting to garish and grotesque, as though the corporate house this quintessential American family had sought refuge in has now become a prison-of-the-mind.
The house, the ultimate beacon of American exceptionalism and individualist private property, becomes a harbinger of the internal jailhouse of the American imagination. The set, an expressionist-tinged, diseased malformation of cardboard sitcom houses, foretells America’s inability to actually address the questions and turmoils hiding in those sitcom houses. Doctors would rather throw Avery back inside the house than address the larger issues at play – for that would involve acknowledging the idea of “private property” as an ideological and physical partner with the dictatorial, masculine brutishness America breeds in those houses in the first place. America, essentially, would rather bandage over Avery’s problems with the modern blues, reds, yellows, and greens of respectable product-oriented living. Macdonald becomes Ray’s partner-in-crime for visualizing how those colors infect and fester under the bandage, which quickly becomes a straight-jacket.
Within, sanitized sitcom suburbia becomes a madhouse and a battleground as Ray and Macdonald slowly distort the walls to engulf and surround the characters. Avery’s “father knows best” routine slides with ease into an authoritarian dictatorship. The diaphanous veneer of gee-shucks Americana drips away as domestic disputes slip into psychotic battles, with Avery increasingly backing his paternalism with corporeal and mental punishment. His wife and child listen to him for fear of their lives. Father knows best, it seems, and he will see to it, by any means necessary, that his family heeds his word. Ray transforms the private pageantry and performance of suburban identity into a closet of skeletons let loose on the family.
We would like to blame the drugs, of course, but Ray has other ideas. It initially seems like the cortisone is a fault of sorts, but the film tacitly admits to the way the drugs merely unhinge Avery, allowing him to clamp further down on his family, and even to use the drugs as an excuse for his iron-fisted near-sadism. The cortisone, it seems, is but a period to Avery’s poisonous paternalism and his sweaty, broad-handed “holier than thou” routine, which persists in his house and in the school. His teaching job becomes yet another manifestation of his insatiable need to control the young, to bend and contort them and break their legs so they can walk to the rhythm of America’s will. For all that America in the ’50s counterpointed itself to the Soviet machine, it seems that the stars-and-stripes nation had simply developed a defter, quieter, and probably more insidious scalpel to seal up the dissenters and the discontents. Everything the medication does to Avery was latent in him to begin with.
In the ’50s, as Michel Foucault might inform us, America had developed a means of “disciplining” youth so as to police them, to shape them to the American way of life, and we had developed not necessarily a freer society than the Soviet Union, but a society with a denser veneer of freedom. The government would not need to resort to dogmatic legislative restrictions because the men of the world, the fathers primarily, would do the dirty work of pre-screening their children in the home and in the school so that they would fit themselves into the American way of life. The coercion, essentially, would be less top-down, affording it the veneer of non-existence, when in reality it was simply lower-boiling. The coercion would be fierce and venomous, but it would arrive bellowing a gentle baritone voice of strength and wisdom, and it would be dressed up in a suit of respectability and good will. Men like Ed Avery would be charged with creating and perpetuating the American way, and in the household, they would be free to covertly abuse their masculine hegemony if they saw fit.
Bigger Than Life was, in 1956, a confrontational muckraking exercise in sticking it to the man. Perhaps because too little has actually changed in America, the film remains, almost 60 years later, the greatest film ever made about the darkness brewing in the American home, the primary but not singular battleground of constructing the American identity. It is one of the textbook cases of this strain of rumble-and-tumble American filmmaking, where brute force and short run-times are markers of tactile efficiency as well as unremitting audience abuse. If Gentleman’s Agreement lectures to us about problems with smug, drowsy self-congratulation, Bigger Than Life is genuinely invested in submersing itself into those problems and taking a beating. It muscles its way into the core of the experience of those problems and turns every ounce of its craft – from editing to sound cues to framing – into a visualization of life on the brink. Gentleman’s Agreement maintains its distance and speaks to oppression from above with stateliness and regal diction, but Bigger Than Life lets us feel the oppression. Because it, in its nightmarish colors and congested angles and uncomfortable destruction of mundane spaces, feels the oppression itself.
If you want to stir up some trouble in the hearts of conventional Americans, avoid the conventional film techniques that lull them into false confidence. Don’t speak to Americans. Scream at them, bellow from the bottom of your stomach, shock them, knock them about, and draw a line in the sand. Be an enfant terrible. Shoot with hysterics, edit for the headlines. Scare them into action. Inhabit their houses, burn those houses down, and then reveal that the embers, the burnings, were started by the polished but rotting wood America built in the first place. No American film has ever better epitomized this principle than Bigger Than Life. It’s a face-melting, radioactive, atomic-age blast of pure film energy.