Bigger Than Life (1956): A Psychosis of the Real

Written by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum, based on an article in the New Yorker by Burton Roueche
Directed by Nicholas Ray
Starring James Mason, Barbara Rush, Christopher Olsen, and Walter Matthau




The period of time surrounding a large election, and the ensuing open discussion of political values, has a way of illuminating a clearer picture of the spirit of a time and place than is usually apprehended. Much of the fantasy and illusion that facilitates the consistent functioning of every day life enters into an area where it becomes negotiable. Having just experienced an American election wherein one party was painted by the other as holding onto beliefs, regarding gender roles especially, of the long past 1950s, it is perhaps an ideal time to revisit a film such as Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life.

School teacher Ed Avery, James Mason, works full-time and has taken up a second part-time job as a cab dispatcher to help make ends meet. He hides this second job from his wife Lou, Barbara Rush, who has given up her job to maintain their home and care for their son Richie. Ed, however, is increasingly plagued by bouts of debilitating pain that he also hides from his friends and family until collapsing and blacking out one night following a game of cards with friends. A trip to the hospital and a battery of tests conclude that Ed’s condition is terminally degenerative, but can be treated with the help of a new experimental drug, cortisone. After an early and successful trial period, Ed is sent home to return to his family and his job. Shortly thereafter, following a brief honeymoon period where he drifts into a manic moment, the pills begin to alter Ed’s behaviour: he becomes more outspoken and critical, aggressive even, and this movement increases in proportion to his reliance on the pill. This psychotic break spirals down and further away from his family, culminating in an attempt to reenact the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac.

Superficially a film about the destructive potential of substance abuse, Bigger Than Life smuggles much broader critiques under its traditional clothing. Ed’s medical condition at the film’s outset is quite obviously not an accidental development, but rather an acute symptom of the pressure of his daily life. In an economic position where he is positioned such that he feels he must provide for the family, while being inadequately remunerated for his work as a teacher, Ed’s burden is the weight of the privilege and responsibility accorded to him by a patriarchal and restrictive society. The development of the “psychosis” that results from his treatment is not a derangement of the mind but an openness to honestly critique his situation, free from the veil of politeness or convention. The depression and alteration that follow Ed’s taking the cortisone pills represents a manifestation of Ed’s ability to articulate the real; it is Ed’s direct access to the real and his insistence on enunciating it that qualify his transgression against the social order. Ed represents a critique of the conservative nature of his society and the alarm expressed by his wife and friends at his transformation is not rooted in the change in his disposition, but rather in how his change reveals the artifice implicit in the maintenance of their genial lives.

Ray’s frequent visual employment of the mirror, and reflections, further articulates the film’s intention to make apparent the artificial nature of socially constructed selves. After Ed has returned home from the hospital, Lou shatters a bathroom mirror in an argument, visually expressing the moment that the character’s perception of her husband has been similarly shattered. When the family goes to an upscale dress store, Lou’s reflection plays prominently in the frame as the focus around which Ray blocks his characters: the reflected Lou sits centre frame, bracketed by Ed and Lou’s actual self and further orbited by the store’s shop girls. The centrality of the reflection, rather than the real, is expressed visually. This relationship between reflection and real emerges multiple times throughout the film, each instance demonstrating the contingent nature of subject construction, such as when Richie attempts to hide the cortisone pills from his father, only to be caught. The viewer is not given an image of the actual Ed glaring incriminatingly at his son, but rather the reflection of Ed, which speaks to Richie’s inability to perceive his father as separate from the artificial father role he functions in – the illusion supersedes the real for Richie.

It is through Ed’s obsessive focus on his son that the film articulates another of its subtle critiques. Consistently shown in red – whether jackets or shirts – whenever he is on screen, Richie is made to occupy the position of the object that is most apparent. In his “psychotic” episode, Ed compulsively circles around his role as a teacher in better preparing the children for the real world, specifically his son. He takes it upon himself to function as the fashioner of Richie’s manhood, whether by hounding him until he can complete a math problem or pressing him to play football beyond its being enjoyable to the boy. Ed’s seeks to transmit his own experience, engineering a victory as a substitute football player in his long past high school years, onto his son. The patriarchal structure of society is enacted through this relationship and follow through to its logical ends. Ed seeks to better prepare his son for the world, but through this process comes to the understanding that this social structure leads the child to resent its elder. The destination of a social structure predicated on masculine competition is a place wherein the law of the father is rejected as it is simultaneously reenacted by the son. It is this revelation, of the inadequacy of the structure, that leads Ed toward his final manic act of filicide; the only way for Richie to escape the grip of the patriarchy is to be radically removed from it.

Ray deftly employs the colour red against a largely nondescript background palette to link the areas of patriarchal influence through the course of the film. In addition to Richie’s red jacket, the edge of the bible that Ed feverishly reads from during the film’s climax is likewise red. Here the word of the father is explicitly linked to the religious tradition, itself quite obviously a patriarchal establishment. Even during his return to the classroom, Ed comes across a young boy whose painting is entirely black save for the figure of a man who seems to be spewing red from his mouth. The boy informs Ed that the painting is of a man who is “just MAD at his mother.” One need not be Freud to apprehend the tangle of psychological and social baggage implicit in that one statement. Even Ed’s entering into and exiting from the real, and the exposing of the structural inadequacies of society, are marked by red lights. As he is first being evaluated, Ed drinks barium and is x-rayed in a room that is lit by red, and later, when he “recovers” from his “psychosis,” the doctors turn off the small red light outside his hospital room. The red lights here effectively signal the way that Ed will cease his engagement with the illusions around him; when the red light is off, the illusion has been restored.

That Lou is dressed in orange for the film’s climax is also of interest. Orange as a colour is contingent on red for its existence, specifically the mixing of red and yellow. Red has been established as a visual signal of the patriarchy in the film and yellow may represent both cowardice and lightness or hope. Lou’s dress then becomes either a representation of the patriarchy’s disdain for the female, or the feminine as means of moving beyond the patriarchal grasp. Not coincidentally, when awaking from the sleep following his mania, Ed asks the doctor first to “turn out the sun,” implying that he would like the yellow light to be removed from his vision. This statement functions more deeply beyond the confused speaking of a drugged man, but gestures toward Ed’s return from the light of knowledge, his return into the cave of ignorance in Plato’s famous Cave analogy, in which the sun represents the truth of knowing. If Rebel Without A Cause is any indication, we can be sure Ray was aware of Plato.

The film’s ending assumes an entirely different tone when reading the film in this manner. Ostensibly a “happy” ending with the family reunited following the crisis, the actuality of the film is much more bleak. Ed’s return from his cortisone-initiated engagement with the real represents a re-establishment of the artificial, of the problematic status quo, and either the crippling fear or complete ignorance of what lies behind it. Inverting the superficial motion of the plot, Ed’s transformation under cortisone is not a psychotic break, but the intervention of the real. The film’s saccharine ending, then, depressingly illustrates the return of the inescapable psychosis of delusion that Ed was able to break from momentarily. Bigger Than Life is less a celebration of the ability of the individual to overcome addiction than a witheringly subtle jab at the fantasy of normality. The film’s title refers not to the disproportionate sense of self expressed by Ed during his break, but rather the oppressively inescapable scale of the illusions we weave to comfort ourselves.


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