Bigger Than Life

Like its younger cousin The Shining, Bigger Than Life is often touted as a Trojan horse assault on the nuclear family, but this may be giving Nick Ray’s immaculately directed picture an advantage it doesn’t really deserve. (It’s certainly one it doesn’t need.) Before James Mason develops his taste for cortisone his family is tainted by only one visible sign of repression, and that’s a minor one: schoolteacher Mason hides his part-time job as a cab dispatcher because his wife won’t think it worthy of him. There’s two things wrong with his theory, however: 1) his second job is a spectacularly crappy one, and 2) Mason’s wife (Barbara Rush)—a woman who proves herself by turns to be loving, perceptive, humorous, and brave—is a nearly ideal spouse. (In fact, we never see her sporting any chip on her shoulder about her family’s class or status, and when she does find out that Mason is moonlighting, she’s merely relieved that his strange absences can be explained by something other than an affair.) Before things go south Mason also enjoys open, even lenient, relationships with his son, students, and colleagues, so that when he does go off the rails thanks to the drug he’s simply too aberrant to epitomize sweater-wearing automatons like Ozzie Nelson—that is, unless you find the notion of middle-class family men troubling in itself. Even at picture’s end the Eisenhowerian take on what’s “normal” remains the optimal state of being: Mason’s restoration of his senses, and his family, is shown as an unqualified Good Thing, even if he isn’t going to sue the pants off the distant, morally dicey doctors who nearly destroyed his life. When all’s said and done, the picture finds that practically anything—even getting clocked by Walter Matthau—is preferable to gutting your kids with a pair of scissors, and this is as it should be.

What’s more interesting to me about these Hollywood ’50s flicks is how even the best and most intelligent ones so often talked down to their audiences, as if they were rather dim children requiring almost constant clarification and instruction, with every truth delivered in kid gloves. (Hadn’t this generation just fought the bloodiest war in history?) After the doctor says that Mason might be “psychotic” when he comes out of his sedative, the camera cuts to a tight close-up of Rush, who gasps, “You mean…out of his mind?” (Whoa, Professor! You’re making our heads spin!) This tendency was something more than the dumbing down that’s always been a part of American movies. It’s part and parcel of the wall-to-wall, utterly humorless narration in The Killing, the smiley-face epilogue the studio nailed onto the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the tone-deaf comedy relief shoehorned into The Searchers—all movies which, along with Bigger Than Life, happened to open in 1956. It started with the crude calls to patriotism in the wartime movies of the ’40s, and reached its apotheosis in the psychiatrist’s lethally tedious monologue that explained—and then re-explained, and then re-re-explained—what the hell was up with Norman Bates. For 20 some-odd years a director could concoct the most sophisticated film imaginable, yet still be obligated to put at its core touches that treated his viewers like a herd of village idiots.

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