Sunday, May 24, 2015

Tonight's Movie: Bigger Than Life (1956)

Last weekend I enjoyed revisiting a favorite film noir, ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1951), at the 2015 Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival.

ON DANGEROUS GROUND was directed by Nicholas Ray. I've really enjoyed most of the Ray films I've seen, ranging from BORN TO BE BAD (1950) to JOHNNY GUITAR (1954) and most especially PARTY GIRL (1958). Other Ray films, such as IN A LONELY PLACE (1950) and THE LUSTY MEN (1952), have left me feeling respectful if not quite on board with the love other classic film fans feel for those titles.

Today I caught another of Ray's films, BIGGER THAN LIFE (1956), for the very first time. In terms of my reaction, the film fell in the second grouping of Ray films; it was interesting and I enjoyed analyzing what I was watching, but that's about it. It's not a movie I'd anticipate wanting to spend more time with in the future.

BIGGER THAN LIFE rather reminded me of the '50s melodramas directed by Douglas Sirk, starting off with beautiful CinemaScope pictures of small town life. (The cinematographer was Joe McDonald.) Almost immediately, however, it's clear there are dark shadows behind the pretty views, as schoolteacher Ed Avery (James Mason) has some sort of passing attack while sitting at his desk.

Ed, in fact, is hiding something else behind his picture perfect life as a respected schoolteacher: Unbeknownst to his wife Lou (Barbara Rush), he's moonlighting after school working as a taxicab dispatcher in order to make financial ends meet. There's nothing really wrong with this, of course, but Ed is ashamed to let his wife know the truth, as the job is "beneath" him. Consequently, Lou starts to think all those "school board" meetings Ed is attending mean he's hiding an affair!

Ed suspects that overwork, holding down two jobs, is what's behind his attacks. The dark waters begin to swirl more intently around Ed until he finally collapses one evening. Diagnosis: a rare and incurable inflammation of the arteries, which can be helped only by a new "miracle drug," cortisone.

There's just one problem: in some cases the drug can lead to depression, and as Ed starts to overdose on the medication in an attempt to feel better, he ends up suffering from a full-blown manic-depressive psychosis. He makes grandiose gestures such as buying his wife expensive dresses they can't afford, then careens the other direction and is tearful or nasty. He finally has a total crackup and wants to kill his son Richie (Christopher Olsen).

As one might imagine, this is not a very cheerful film to watch. I'm going to need something like an MGM musical or Tim Holt Western to clear the viewing palate after being put through the wringer by this one! That said, it was a rather interesting film to observe.

I say "observe" as I never really felt emotionally engaged; some of that may have been a protective mechanism, knowing it was going to be a heavy film, and perhaps with the film's glossy overlay it also never really felt quite real to me. I watched it as an outsider looking in the window, and that was as close as I wanted to get.

Looking through the Averys' window, actually, was quite interesting in and of itself. Colorful kitchenware contrasts with the awful-looking old hot water heater in the corner, a reflection of the family's inability to completely keep up with their lifestyle, as well as a foreshadowing of the battle Ed and Lou will have when the hot water runs out. When Ed treats Lou dismissively as she repeatedly heats up his bath water in a teakettle, she finally cracks herself.

Someone looking closely will also note there are travel posters and maps all over the house; attractive, but also speaking to Ed's yearning to break free from his "boring" life? Meanwhile a souvenir football on the mantel seems to looks backwards sadly to Ed's glory days in college football. (I have to pause here to say -- James Mason a football star?!)

The film never really addresses whether the medication was solely responsible for Ed's breakdown, or was he perhaps an unhappy man waiting to fall apart at any moment and the medication was the last straw?

The film's ending leaves more questions than answers; it's pseudo-happy, but I didn't believe it. After all, Ed's either got to stay on the medication, perhaps more carefully monitored, or quit taking it and die. Not very good alternatives!

Mason is well cast, and his biting accent works really well as the feelings Ed's been suppressing come out and he starts letting people know how he really feels. (Or at least how he feels while under the influence.) Rush does a good job as a woman who sees her comfortable placid lifestyle as a homemaker crumbling in unexpected ways, first suspecting her husband's affair and then, relieved to discover she was wrong, immediately plunged into even darker territory, looking at losing her husband altogether.

I'm not a very big fan of Walter Matthau, but I was relieved each time his character entered the picture, as he represented the sane antithesis to Mason; he's also someone Lou, and by extension the audience, can lean on, whether he's delivering groceries, teaching Richie to make a drink for his father, or finding a magazine article which provides a key to understanding Ed's behavior.

The movie is a visual treat, and the bright pops of color, which made me think not only of Sirk but Yasujiro Ozu, helped make the film more tolerable for me despite the dark subject matter. Indeed, there's a fascinating dichotomy between the colorful surface and the dark interiors of the story. I also enjoyed a quick look at Robinsons department store, which was also seen in NIGHTFALL (1957), and the church is identified at the blog Dear Old Hollywood as the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles.

The screenplay of this 95-minute film was credited to Richard Maibaum and Cyril Hume, with uncredited contributions from Clifford Odets and Gavin Lambert, plus Ray and Mason, who was also the film's producer. The score is by David Raksin (LAURA).

Thanks to Blake Lucas for lending me his beautiful Criterion Collection DVD! The movie is also out from Criterion on Blu-ray, and it turns up from time to time on Turner Classic Movies.

BIGGER THAN LIFE is a title from my friend Kristina's list of 10 Classics to see for the first time in 2015. We're each trying to watch some of the films on each other's lists this year as a way to be exposed to even more significant films, as well as encouraging each other to stay on track watching our lists steadily throughout the course of the year. (I've had a tendency to "power watch" several titles during the last couple months of the year!) Kristina's review is here, and I highly encourage my readers to check out her take on the movie.

Coming soon: Kristina and I will be jointly reviewing a film from my "10 Classics" list, Kurosawa's THE HIDDEN FORTRESS (1958).


Blogger Kristina Dijan said...

Yes, to most of this. I liked your description of it being like observing through a window, detached. Which is intentional, part of the tension and message.

For all my discomfort and inability to relate to the blanket criticism and rejection of the institutions and values here, I still found the acting and look of it interesting and well done. The drug and disease become almost irrelevant, a way into the statement on Mason's life and society in general.

Also agree about Matthau, he really was a comforting presence.

Great to hear your thoughts on it. Best

6:06 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Yes, that's a great point about the irrelvancy, I liked what you said over at your site about the disease/drug being the "McGuffin."

Thanks for inviting me to review this along with you!

Best wishes,

6:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a neat idea, the two of you reviewing the same film. I enjoyed both your reviews and it sounds like a film one would maybe only want to see once. I like your comment about needing a musical or Tim Holt to lighten your mood after viewing it!

12:00 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

It's fun comparing notes, Vienna! As well as hearing what people contribute in the comments.

That was definitely one heavy movie!

Best wishes,

12:32 AM  
Blogger James Corry said...

Since you're discussing an early Fox CinemaScope picture (1956)and you like Westerns, I'm REALLY curious/anxious to get your take on Fox 1954 dark Western "Garden Of Evil"......


5:37 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Brad, GARDEN OF EVIL has been on my "to see" list for quite a while now. I have the Westerns box set it's in and have seen the other two films in the set but haven't gotten around to this one yet. Love the cast.

Thanks for your interest, I'll try to bump it up in the towering "to watch" stack!

Best wishes,

6:39 PM  
Blogger Robby Cress said...

Thanks for the mention Laura. Enjoyed reading your critique. I'm fond of most Ray films, and although I enjoyed this one, I place it below many of his others. The acting and look of the film make it worth a view.

11:51 AM  

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