Great Shot of the Week/Bigger Than Life
Bigger Than Life (1956)
Dir. Nicholas Ray
There are times in Ray’s superb melodrama that come across as a sort of Reefer Madness as directed by Fritz Lang. I mean this in the finest way possible, because in using this formula, Ray inserts some richly subversive elements in the process. A few moments come to mind throughout the film; a scene involving the test of an experimental drug that is bar-graphed on screen, culminating in a handwritten “No Pain!” sprawled across the screen, seeming to wink at the form; a child drawing what appears to be a gory, violent scene in class, casually dismissed; the lead protagonist, an elementary school teacher, calling his pupils “grotesque dogs” at a PTA meeting, in front of doting parents and faculty. What strikes me most in this film though is the ominous lighting that subtly builds and takes shape as the addiction and “downfall” progress, alluding to German Expressionism in equal measure to Hollywood melodrama.
Take this scene for example: We see James Mason, quite possibly playing the role more extreme and punishing than its material even allows, disciplining his son with an arithmetic problem, and forbidding him to eat dinner before he solves it. For the 1950s, this feels like a routine bit of parenting, but Ray subverts it much more by adding insult to injury, as earlier that afternoon, young Richie was forbidden to eat lunch due to his lack of football prowess, thus elevating this scenario to torturous heights. The lighting adheres much closer to Expressionist horror film than suburban melodrama, and while the genre was wildly successful and sly in its commentary through films by Sirk and others, Ray’s film sneaks in much more cutting criticism, the likes of which wouldn’t be seen on wide scale until the 1960s.
Richie solves the problem of course, and there is celebration as if such measures were just a figment of the imagination. What Ray masterfully accomplishes with this film, however, is how he follows this release with a far more harrowing scene, just as the tension feels its most alleviated. When James Mason announces his disgust for his wife, and his conviction that he has in fact already divorced her in his mind, the lighting no longer suggests foreboding horror and dark shadows, but a sterile realism that complicates beyond any experimental drug might forgive. Ray employs this catch-and-release formula throughout the film, culminating in a particularly intense and hallucinatory climax, and in doing so, even through the obligatory “happy” ending, the audience is left feeling discomfort at the number of genuine truths and character flaws explored throughout. It’s no wonder the film took this long to find a proper audience. It feels so prescient that it practically skips ahead four decades and plays as if it were a Haynes-ian re-appropriation of the form.