We Can’t Have Nice Things

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Images m Nicholas Ray’s BIGGER THAN LIFE, in Gorgeous Lifelike Color by Deluxe. Showed this one to a small but appreciative batch of students at Screen Academy Scotland on Wednesday night, and it was interesting to discuss it afterwards. Since the film is both magnificent and flawed (note that I don’t say “but flawed”), a lot of the discussion was about things that didn’t quite live up to the high standard set in the movie’s best scenes, and in particular I got to thinking about the weird fight scene that climaxes the film.

I first encountered the movie in Scorsese’s American Cinema series, where as I recall the clips shown consisted mainly of (a) the broken mirror, (b) the PTA meeting that Mason almost turns into a fascist rally, (c) the scene of James Mason home-schooling his kid, his giant shadow looming on the wall, (d) the dinner scene with Ray tracking relentlessly in on the kid as he listens to pop berate mom — the move swiped in AMERICAN BEAUTY, and (d) the climax with Mason planning to “sacrifice” his son. I think his reading of the Bible, and the line “God was wrong,” may be the reason Eddie Izzard uses James Mason’s voice whenever he “does” God in his stand-up act.

What Scorsese does with these clips is create a miniature version of the film that’s even more brilliant and intense than the real thing. Although Ray’s film, unlike Scorsese’s, gets to build up more momentum, and sets up more nuances and resonances and themes and social critiques (like ripples in a pool, the narrative starts from a single point — a teacher gets sick — then spreads out to cover EVERYTHING), it also contains leaden moments and implausibilities that maybe work against it’s overall success. Or maybe not.

That fight — the Scorsese edit (not a version of the film, I know, merely a sort of helpful precis) ends with Mason, on the point of carrying out his child sacrifice with a pair of scissors, literally seeing red: after all the spots and splashes of red in Ray’s meticulous colour scheme, the entire screen is now engulfed in a sort of blood maelstrom, causing Mason to collapse and his son to escape. The full version of the film then has good old Walter Matthau come to the rescue, resulting in a kind of western brawl, with James and Walter crashing through a banister, smashing furniture to matchwood and tumbling over the couch, a sequence which rather reminds one of the incongruity of casting the slope-shouldered, bow-legged Matthau as a fitness-obsessed gym teacher. Yet the actors seem to struggle through without a lot of obvious stunt-doubling.

Now, once Mason has had his disabling fit of redness, and the kid has escaped, the worst-thing-that-could-happen (that event all stories are heading for) has been averted. So arguably the movie should climax there, without the domestic donnybrook that follows, proceeding directly to the reconciliation scene, with its shades of King Lear, at the hospital, and thence to fadeout. I couldn’t see the purpose of the big punch-up, and found it a bit… embarrassing. But, wrestling with it, I did come up with a sort of explanation for its presence.

Of the several Big Themes weaving their way through the narrative (a story shouldn’t really be able to handle this many, but somehow this one manages it), one of the most prominent is that of the lifestyle that causes sickness. At the film’s start, Mason is holding down two jobs, one of which is kept secret from his wife. To maintain a home befitting a middle-class pillar of the community, Mason must work part-time in a cab company, but he cannot admit to this, because the job itself is beneath his dignity. His illness is brought on by overwork.

Hospital bills then damage the family’s security even more, so that by the time Mason is discharged, under the influence of a miracle drug, he can no longer afford to be ill. This means that when the drug’s side effects start to cause psychosis, Barbara Rush, as Mason’s wife, tries her best to pretend nothing is wrong. Mason’s erratic behaviour at work cannot be excused by illness, because his employers mustn’t suspect he’s not fit to teach. Rush’s desire for the best of everything even emerges when she’s pleading for her son’s life: showing Mason a baby photograph, she reminds him of the “terrible second-hand buggy” they used to push Little Richie around in. It’s a touching, disturbing, and dreadfully funny moment.

All through the narrative financial concerns drive Rush to go along with Mason’s madness, while Mason’s first, and most consistent, symptom of insanity is an utter disregard for money. He buys new dresses for his wife, a bike for his son, quits his part-time job, and plans to go and live in a hotel, embarking on a lifelong educational project (“An entirely new kind of television programme”) that will be completely unpaid. He’ll even go to the hotel in a cab.

So, financial pressures make Mason ill, and madness allows him to escape financial pressures. The cause of these pressures is the family home, a spacious two-storey house with a TV and a boiler that constantly needs fixed. Ergo, the house is the villain of the piece, a sort of symbolic Amityville Horror home. When Mason is taken to hospital after collapsing, he has another attack at the threshold, causing him to clutch the door-jam and make the bell ring for seconds on end. I don’t quite know what that means, but I’m sure it means SOMETHING.

As the domestic conflict and insanity deepens and darkens, property damage mounts, with Rush ironically causing the first smash-up, when she slams the bathroom cabinet and breaks the mirror (uh-oh!). Mason causes further spillages through over-enthusiastic playing with his son, and then the final battle with Matthau produces an ecstasy of destruction — for once, nobody cares what the fixtures and fittings cost, everything can be sacrificed as long as the maniac Mason is subdued.

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“An entirely new kind of television programme…” Incredibly enough, it looks very much like little Christopher Olsen is standing in front of a set that’s showing a scene from THE TARNISHED ANGELS, a film in which he will appear two years later, trapped in the fairground ride we see and hear during this sequence. Weird.

41 Responses to “We Can’t Have Nice Things”

  1. Bigger Than Life is the beating heart of Nick Ray — with all his contradictions and insanities. Go directly to Gavin Lambert’s Mostly About Lindsay Anderson for the skinny on Ray both personally and professionally. In many ways he was Hollywood’s John Cheever. And never more so than here — though Cheever was shy of going full-bore on the melodrama until late in his career. While it’s pretty good as is, (and would be perfect on a double bill with Bigger Than Life) it’s a shame Ray didn’t make the movie version of The Swimmer.

    Back in the day the “Cahiers” crowd wrote about Bigger Than Life and Hawks’ Monkey Business in the same breath. if you know the latter (it isn’t spoken of much these days) you can easily see why.

  2. Monkey Business builds to a fair old pitch of savagery itself. The “scalping” scene is almost terrifying. It may have gone directly from being overrated to underrated.

    Bigger Than Life scores so many points, all over the place. When little Chris wakes from a nap in the hospital at the end, the first thing he sees is a janitor, the only black person in the film. “Some people sure work late,” he says, sleepily. It’s a throwaway line with no necessity for being there, but I love that it is.

  3. Looking fabulous. It’s a little unfair that Ray said he dressed her in orange to make her stronger, because she wasn’t as compelling as Mason. She’s actually superb in the scenes where her character is well-written, and often very good at covering up weaknesses in the script elsewhere. Sometimes her character has to be so sappy it’s incredible, but that plays to Mason’s strengths, so it works out OK. It’s a very generous performance in that sense — I can see a lot of modern actresses objecting to the character as weak or silly.

  4. True. But not anymore. She’s very much a owmn of her moment. Easy for feminists should say she should kick over the traces and break out on her own, but she loves her crazy husband and leaving him to suffer slone would be monstrous –despite his dangerousness.

    In many ays this parallels ordinary domestic violence The difference is the mania overtakes him. it’s not mere macho agressiveness demanding female “submission.” Moreover there’s the kid, who is cetral to what makes the man tick. Oh there’s so much to talk about with a film like this.

  5. Arthur S. Says:

    I think you do the ending of the film a lot of discredit.

    Don’t forget that the fight scene at the staircase is set to the carnival music from the TV(the film has a superb soundtrack) and it just magnifies the intensity of that scene. Dramatically it makes sense too. The hospital scene while obviously intended as one of those hollow “happy endings” that are intended to appease no one has the key line of the film, written by Clifford Odets himself(and for me far superior to the whole of SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS!). When he wakes up, Mason tells the doctor that “You’re a poor substitute for Lincoln.” And then says, “I had a dream where I met Abraham Lincoln. And He was as big and beautiful and ugly as he was in life.”

    I don’t know if BIGGER THAN LIFE is flawed, for me it’s a masterpiece and an essential film about the underside of family life. It’s available on DVD from Spain and France and recently a terrific DVD came out in Britain. So maybe if you see a copy of that it’ll work better.

    The issue of Ed Avery’s madness is that he gets worked up about the smallest of things and magnifies that. Like his bit with the milkman, where he harasses the poor guy for no reason except I suppose to make him feel better. It’s all about a man with anger and pain boiling inside wanting to burst out but getting thwarted. Not unlike the drug which gives him a high but if he goes off it, it would kill him. Essentially he can only live on delusions about life. So if the fight scene is embarassing I think that was the point.

    Scorsese’s documentary was my entry into the film too. Truffaut also wrote a great piece about it. He noted that the screen going “red” when he’s about to kill his son is like a replay of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac where God stops him at the last minute, here it comes in the form of a seizure.

  6. A film for today for sure.

    And you’re so right – the Scorsese ‘edits’ of the films in both his American and Italian docs are priceless in themselves. I can’t watch the first kiss between the Lyndons in Barry Lyndon now without thinking of Scorsese’s haunted voice speaking over it.. whether that’s a good or thing or not.

  7. Arthur S. Says:

    Barbara Rush was actually cast on James Mason’s suggestion. He produced BIGGER THAN LIFE. Ray later said that he and Bogart were his favourite producers.

    I thought Barbara Rush was very good in that role. And I never understood her as weak or silly at all and I doubt Ray felt that way either.

    One interesting point, the orange dress that Mason buys for her in that bizarre shopping-spree scene(anticipating VERTIGO and hommaged by Fassbinder in I ONLY WANT YOU TO LOVE ME) is the dress she wears to Church in the climax and the one she wears when Ed finally cracks.

  8. The hurdy-gurdy music during the fight is a very nice touch. What I was trying to get at with this piece is that things that seem like mistakes at first — and the atmosphere in a room during a screening can tell you a lot — can on closer examination be pretty interesting. The fight goes on past the point where the film has climaxed, which SEEMS like a mistake, but a lot of thought has gone into that mistake. It might still be a false move, but it’s one that gives us a lot to think about. Sometimes a complex mistake is better than a simple success.

    Truffaut’s line about the seizure is a terrific observation.

    My off-air recording is pretty good, but as I watched it I felt that an upgrade would definitely be desirable. It’s one of those films you have to own in the best possible form.

    I love how Avery’s disatisfaction with his life is already present from the start. And his OTT behaviour starts as soon as he’s released from hospital, BEFORE he’s OD-ing on his meds. The cortisone is really something of a macguffin or pretext to unleash his unhappiness about his social position.

  9. Ray said that orange was even more eye-catching than red, and noticed with approval that it had started being used for hazard signs. Orange and red chevrones seem to be very popular.

    Mrs Avery is a little dense when she tries to get her husband to stop taking the pills, failing to realise that this would kill him. I found that hard to swallow. And then her reluctance to speak to a doctor other than her GP, when he husband is clearly going off the rails, is sheer plot contrivance, or feels like it. But in her flashes of anger, especially when she tells off the doctor at the end, she wins our respect.

  10. Arthur S. Says:

    Nicholas Ray was too elaborate and concentrated for making complex mistakes. He was totally ahead of the Hollywood curve.

    Ray was actually quite cryptic about cortisone. He mentioned that he originally didn’t want to name the drug but the pharmaceutical lobby of the company pressurized the production to make clear that Avery is misusing the drug and that there’s nothing wrong with it. Then he said that cortisone actually stands in for another drug.

    I think it’s really a metaphor or a conceit for living that life. That to escape the dulness and stasis of that life you have to be on a high every day and there’s only a void as an alternative. And at the end Avery is back at the stasis and Abraham Lincoln(aka the American Dream or Ideal or whatnot) is just as beautiful and ugly as he is in life. Abraham Lincoln of course connects with Abraham, the role in which he casted himself before his breakdown.

    The film’s real themes are the low-pay of teachers but also the delusions on which middle-class life survives. They have this suburban house but it can only be maintained by keeping two jobs, one is a switchboard operator for a taxi company(the famous shot of him running to work arched by that row of yellow taxicabs…) and of course Ed Avery has a desire to travel the world so his house is full of travel posters. Stocking his house with dreams that only make him crazier.

  11. Arthur S. Says:

    Well that’s a human error. She is very concerned with her husband’s behaviour and it’s natural that she’d forget this because the Ed on medication is not “her Ed”(even if parodoxically it’s a manifestation of his inner essence) and then when she comes in with the newsreport of issues with Cortisone and tells him to drop it, she realizes at once and puts her hand in mouth in horror.

    Relying on one’s General Practitioner is extremely common even among the most educated of people even in these circumstances. The reason is that for a housewife bogged all the time worried about bills, maintaining the house and raising her son as well as managing her ailing husband it’s the quickest and most immediate. And at the same time, she would be most reluctant to get Ed committed because of the social stigma for once but also the very real dangers of 50s psychiatry.

  12. Arthur S. Says:

    ————————-
    the Scorsese ‘edits’ of the films in both his American and Italian docs are priceless in themselves. I can’t watch the first kiss between the Lyndons in Barry Lyndon now without thinking of Scorsese’s haunted voice speaking over it.. whether that’s a good or thing or not.
    —————————-

    Yeah. Film criticism on film is actually an artform in it’s own right, isolating a clip so that it would have power on it’s own. THE PUBLIC ENEMY portions in the documentary are extremely well done and kind of spoilt the film when I saw it afterwards. DETOUR of course highlighted the essential fact that the lighting of Daniel Day-Lewis’ face in THE AGE OF INNOCENCE(the plates at the dinnertable of that film are probably the budget on which Ulmer made his film) is a hommage to Edgar G.

    Especially striking for me was him discussing SENSO in IL MIO VIAGGIO IN ITALIA, where talks about the choreography of the action with Verdi and the use of frecoes in a scene between Valli and Granger.

    I’m not sure the edits of BIGGER THAN LIFE in the documentary is better than the film as David C. suggests. For my part, I thought the 2001 climax excerpted in the film had more grandeur than the end of Kubrick’s fiilm.

  13. I do think Ray was capable of mistakes. He was drinking heavily all through the shoot, with “vitamin shots” from the studio keeping him functional (according to Lambert, who had a ringside seat). By the time of Wind Across the Everglades he was removed from the film due to incapacity, even though producer Budd Schulberg was no teetotaller himself. And 55 Days at Peking is a largely misbegotten project.

    So, although Bigger Than Life shows Ray at the peak of his powers, the seeds of his disintegration are somewhat evident. Also the compromises inherent in making a socially critical studio film. So I feel like imperfection is very much part of the film’s greatness. And Ray’s problems were never associated with trying to do too little — a but like Avery, he wanted his films to be enormous, all-embracing, and sometimes he agonised over tiny decisions.

    Re the GP — Rush phones the hospital and is told that Dr Norton is out for the weekend but she can speak to somebody else. She decides to wait until Norton is back, so it’s far from the most quick and immediate solution she’s after. One can understand her preferring the family doctor they know, but it’s a very bad decision, as events show (and as the audience, familiar with narrative conventions, is well aware).

  14. Today we have far more sophisticated proscription narcotics — infinitely more addictive and destructive than heroin or cocaine. Just yesterday Anna Nicole Smith’s lawyer/ pimp and two of her doctors were indicted for the drugs that ther kept her on (in a state of semi-comatose delerium) that led to her death.

    I haven’t the slightest doubt that Heath Ledger’s drug supplier’s will be arrested for his death in a few months time.

  15. This is all part of the medicalising of ordinary unhappiness, which is both medically dangerous and personally disempowering. Depression is an illness. Discontent is not, and taking drugs to suppress it is risky and misguided.
    _ _ _

    If I have one problem with some of the Scorsese edits, it’s just that — by serving up an intensified highlights reel, they make you feel like it’s unnecessary to actually see the film under discussion. It’s a bigger problem in the Italian film than in the Hollywood one. Still, I eagerly await the next Scorsese doc. Kent Jones’ Val Lewton film is superb.

  16. Arthur S. Says:

    Scorsese’s next is the long-in-development film about British cinema. According to him, the three biggest influences were American, Italian and British. And I don’t know if Kent Jones will be directing or he will, but he will be involved in an upcoming film about Elia Kazan.

    Ray noted abut BIGGER THAN LIFE, “This film is about a miracle drug and I don’t believe in miracles.” I guess that’s the essence of the nightmare with the drug industry and these precription pills.

  17. I am reminded of Freud’s explanation of psychoanalysis as transforming hysterical misery into common or ordinary unhappiness.

  18. Arthur S. Says:

    Yeah. Freud said that there was no cure to neurosis and disorders, the only thing possible is living with it which he thought was the function of psychoanalysis. Psychiatry is about taking pills to avoid facing the problem.

  19. Bigger than Life is among things a wonderful and moving depiction of the danger of grandiosity, which of course is predicated on emotional immaturity.

  20. Arthur S. Says:

    Yeah. The entire film is a catalogue of a man trying to be big. The first is being a Great Lover…like buying his wife brand new dresses and trying to make her hotter by taking her to buy dresses at a place recommended by a co-worker who is quite attractive. Then in the mirror scene, he dresses himself carefully with that ascot as if he’s a great intellectual and he pesters his wife to keep serving him as a dormat and then she snaps and shuts the cabinet mirror breaking it.

    Then it’s Great Teacher, the whole “childhood is a disease and education is the cure”(which is so intense that when I first saw it, it nearly convinced me because of his seductivenes, that’s how effective the film is). Then he suddenly decides to be a Father to his son, humiliating him cruelly. The end of this obsessions is the peak of patriarchy, ergo God.

    David calls this running through many themes and threads and he says that it’s not a good idea to usually do this but the thing is Ray does this in a very clear way, assaulting patriarchy by showing the insanity of that structure, essentially the Father sucking the Son’s soul, the Father wanting to kill his Son by persecuting the boy for his own failures.

  21. I also think that the portrait of Ed Avery in in part at least a depiction of
    a character caught in the grip of addictive dependencies and the ensuing flight into unreality, hpyer-reality and fantasy. The need for a “fix”, an escape from the mundane necessities of everyday living into the false freedom of abstractions. Perhaps Ed is a self-portrait, in that Ray was aware of the addictive possibilites that alcohol provides for escape into the “abstraction” of grandiosity.

  22. Yes, it’s possible that the drug Bigger Than Life is “really” about is alcohol. That was certainly Ray’s favoured escape mechanism from family life. Those travel posters certainly show Avery’s urge to escape.

    It’s true that the obsessions follow a clear sequence, so that he’s never merely “mad”, he moves from obsessive quest to obsessive quest, and they’re all related to his desire to be bigger than himself. And the film offers a glimpse of where that leads in the domestic and the political arena.

  23. Arthur S. Says:

    I don’t think it’s especially useful to look at it as it being autobiographical. I knew nothing about Ray when I saw it and I knew the film was about the craziness of family life(and I had a happy childhood) that few other movies really talk about. At best it might be self-critical(not unlike IN A LONELY PLACE) but I don’t think it’s a self-portrait. Jonathan Rosenbaum made a stronger case for self-portraiture vis-a-vis Richard Burton’s Captain Leith in BITTER VICTORY or maybe Robert Mitchum in THE LUSTY MEN, both of them being itinerant wanderers who are permanently off balance wherever they are.

    Ray said that the message of the film was that there was nothing bigger than life. Which is also the message of the Planetorium scene in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE about the world not being missed if it were to be annihilated in the grand picture of the universe. BIGGER THAN LIFE is connected to REBEL in that it’s in the same territory and also the fact that the coat worn by Richie is red, just like Jim Stark’s legendary red windbreaker.

  24. Well, it’s not necessary to know anything about Ray to appreciate In a Lonely Place, either. And that one clearly has major autobiographical elements, although it’s also a film about a troubled relationship which communicates even to those who have been very lucky in that regard.

    Ray’s father was likewise an alcoholic, so I suspect that may have informed the film too.

    I just think that Ray’s hint that the film was really about “another drug” may have meant alcohol. Or, conceivably, authority.

    My students all picked up on the red coat, I was pleased to see.

  25. Arthur S. Says:

    A bigger influence on BIGGER THAN LIFE, autobiographically speaking, is Ray’s own catastrophic failure as a father vis-a-vis his son Anthony Ray. The younger Ray(who, as per SHADOWS, looks a great deal like his father) hated Ray who was largely absent. Ray pitched REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE to producers by telling them that he wanted to look at kids as if they were his own children, and it’s clear he felt that way with Plato(whose absent father fills him with hatred) and with Jim Stark’s relationship with his henpecked father.

    With BIGGER THAN LIFE, it’s the perspective of the father and Ray inserts sharp criticism of him from Richie, who is clearly not taking his dad’s insanity lying down like his mom. Don’t forget when he mocks him, reminding him of failure to make it as a football star when Ed chases him around the house.

    IN A LONELY PLACE is an achingly beautiful film. A love story that’s very seductive even if it ends badly and it’s actually a favourite date movie since it’s release on DVD(after which it’s reputation has skyrocketed). It’s just soaked with romanticism and poetry.

  26. Tom Farrell Says:

    Hey, this is a stimulating discussion of ideas. While Nick Ray was teaching filmmaking at Harpur College he was so impressed by a fine 16mm print of “Bigger Than Life” screened there that he stole the print and denied to the authorities that he was the thief. However, the university knew better and deducted the cost of the purloined print from his paycheck. Criterion is supposed to release a DVD for Region 1.
    Beware the Ides of March!

  27. Arthur S. Says:

    Really…that’s terrific. I wonder if that new print that was pu out in January at the Lincoln Center was impetus for Criterion to pick it up. I believe it was a raging success.

    Ray stealing his own film is so touching. Did he say anything specific about the film and how he felt to it. In one interview he mentioned being satisfied with the film but regretting the awkward hollow fake happy ending.

  28. That’s a fantastic story, Tom. I’m reminded that the original plot Ray pitched to Wenders when they planned to collaborate was the story of a dying painter who decides to steal back all his own paintings from the galleries they hang in. That MUST have been inspired by his own film-snatching experience.

    Gavin Lambert’s book is extremely good on In a Lonely Place as well as Bigger Than Life. It’s very good on most of them. Combining it with Ray’s own I Was Interrupted and Eisenschitz’s biography makes for a pretty good Ray library.

  29. Tom Farrell Says:

    It was 30 years ago his month when Nick Ray and Wim Wenders began filming their second and final collaboration, which came to be called “Lightning Over Water.” Yes, David, originally Nick intended to play the painter Derwatt from “The American Friend” again until Wim insisted that Nick play himself as a filmmaker. Ray was a filmmaker who didn’t own prints to his own films. That’s probably why he wanted to have them back.

  30. I guess it also must have become apparent that Ray couldn’t play any role where he had to be physically active. I must copy that film for a friend who’s making a documentary about a man dying of MS. It’s interesting because many of the ethical questions become very apparent.

  31. Tom Farrell Says:

    Nick thought the ending was tacked on, as if by studio decree, but he did want to end his films in hope, however contrived.

  32. Arthur S. Says:

    Well that’s nice. Most of his films, however, are very pessimistic. There is a possibility of hope is at the end of REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, which I believe was the film he was most proud of. And of course if Hughes didn’t mess it up, the ending of ON DANGEROUS GROUND would have more power. The end of THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS is very ironic but it’s also touching and compassionate.

  33. Ray also changed the end of In a Lonely Place on the set, to make it more optimistic. (In the original, he kills her.) “We don’t know whether he’s going to go get drunk, kill himself, or go to a shrink. Those have always been my three preferred options, by the way,” he told Lambert.

    Ray absented himself from the cutting of Rebel, which is a shame, after fighting with Warners. The studio opted not to use his stunning end shot, filmed from inside the observatory dome as it closes — the wide wide screen gradually getting narrower until everything is black.

  34. Arthur S. Says:

    Interesting because Ray maintained that REBEL was the only film of his that came out as he wanted it. The last shot of the film is of course Ray himself dawdling up the observatory as the sun rises on another day.

    It makes sense to end it with light.

    “Jim…will the end of the world come by night-time?”
    “No…by dawn!”

  35. Arthur S. Says:

    I think the ending of IN A LONELY PLACE is a real stroke of genius, because ending it with death would just make the film ugly. The way it ends now has both of them are right back where they started, that spell of happiness which they enjoyed has been annihilated. She was a former kept woman disappointed with compromise, now she’s an ex-lover burned with love. Him, he got a script approved(who can tell how it’ll end up on the screen?), he’s damaged his friendship with his agent and lost the only woman who actually took him seriously.

    It’s a deeply sad ending, all the moreso because Bogart and Grahame look and act like a well-matched couple in their time together, especially in that scene in the kitchen where he talks about writing love scenes and how what they are doing is actually a love scene. I wonder how it would turn out if Lauren Bacall played the role, because she was originally going to do it but couldn’t get optioned from WB where she had a contract(this was an indpendent production by Bogart’s company). The real life dream couple of the 40s playing a failed adult relationship would have been shocking stuff in that time.

    Somehow, in none of Ray’s films do the characters end up drunk in the end.

  36. Yeah, the closing observatory shot feels less optimistic, which is probably why it wasn’t used. It’s GORGEOUS though. Nice to have Ray walking by also, I agree. I think you can see the deleted shot as an extra, along with the b&w footage shot in week 1.

    The kitchen scene with the grapefruit knife is loaded with ironies though. As Bogart is talking about how comfortable they are, she’s trying to think how she can escape marrying him… another example of beautifully dense writing and filmmaking, layers and layers of meaning and emotion.

  37. This is a discussion that I am joining extremely late but, having discovered this blog only about a week ago (and quite a discovery it has been), which is also about how long ago I finally got round to watching Bigger Than Life. I’ve been wanting to see this movie for more than a decade, ever since reading about it in Thomas Schatz’s Hollywood Genres. I’ve really gotten out of the movie-watching habit in the last several years, however, and I’m only recently trying to pick it back up again. It’s a little sobering to know that even if I start watching two movies an evening for the rest of my life I’ll never catch up to the better-informed lovers of film here. Anyway…

    Excellent film. My partner liked it also; he’s younger than I, raised on a somewhat different diet of entertainments than I was, so I’m always heartened when I pick something old to watch and he likes it. He also amused me by correctly predicting the appearance of James Mason’s face in the small mirror that Richie disturbs when he’s ransacking the bedroom for his father’s pills. That actually hadn’t occurred to me while watching.

    I don’t know that I have anything particularly intelligent to say about the movie. Before watching it I would have thought that soft-spoken James Mason would have been wrong for the part but I’ve got no complaints, even if it is slightly hard to imagine him being consumed by a passion for American football. I find myself imagining a beefier actor in the role–Edmond O’Brien maybe; he’d be more credible (and menacing) as a frustrated, failed athlete but perhaps not so much as a frustrated, failed educator.

    The movie abounds with beautiful shots and compositions. There’s one shot I just love to pieces near the end when Lou (or it is “Lu”?) Avery is sneaking a look from the kitchen at her husband torturing their son with late-night math lessons. This shot: http://imgur.com/Oeu5V Everything’s in twilight except for Ed Avery in his gleaming white shirt and his son looks like he’s bowing down at his feet, as though Ed were a Pope or a Mafia don. A little later on we get that scene where Ed is talking to Lou while between them moves Ed’s enormous shadow. It can’t be coincidence that the shadow of Ed Avery’s head falls on top of a broad strip of molding around the door so that his shadow’s head looks monstrous and deformed as it moves back and forth.

    Speaking of compositions: is it just me, or does this shot of Ed’s doctors (http://imgur.com/tUOUc) just look wrong and unsettling somehow? You keep expecting someone to pop in through that door but nobody does. Also the doctor on the left keeps fidgeting and chewing on his fingernails throughout the scene. Is Ray trying deliberately to make the doctors look creepy? On the surface the film seems to go to some pains to present them as competent and responsible; Ray even presents us with a chart showing how, during Ed’s initial treatment with cortisone, the dosage was first increased and then decreased to a safer maintenance dosage. The real-life doctors of the real schoolteacher on whom the story of Bigger Than Life was based were apparently not so responsible and upped the dosage of cortisone without good reason. But I’ve only read a description of the original “New Yorker” article, not the article itself.

    Lou Avery’s helplessness and paralysis is painful to watch at times. I didn’t get the impression that she was weak or silly exactly; she’s always sympathetic. All the same some of the things she says and does make me wince. Yes, she’s in a horrible bind, but she also makes it worse for herself. When friend Wally suggests rather sensibly that Lou should think about getting her old job back–how else to support the family when Ed’s determined to quit all his responsibilities?–she rejects it summarily. When Richie finally rebels against his father’s abuse, Lou’s advice to keep on loving him no matter what happens is touching but chilling. Even to the last second she struggles vainly to placate him.

    Parts of Bigger Than Life reminded me oddly of Kubrick’s The Shining. There’s a feeling of kinship in Ed Avery’s obsession with the “old virtues” of responsibility and duty, the values that he wants to beat into his son and that he thinks his wife is sabotaging, and Jack Torrance’s ranting about his “responsibility to his employers” and his wife’s lack of “moral or ethical principle”. Also there are scenes in both movies of the fathers’ victims hiding in bathrooms.

    Finally, I feel compelled unfortunately to end on a sour note, inspired by comments like this one from Arthur S.: “Psychiatry is about taking pills to avoid facing the problem.” Now…I’m a chemist by education and temperament so maybe I can be accused of having a somewhat mechanistic attitude about mental health (and other things). I’m naturally inclined to great respect for the discipline of medicine, and for psychiatry in particular for attempt to locate the cause of mental illness in derangements of biochemistry that can be objectively studied and (one hopes) treated, rather than in the nebulous and unverifiable conjectures of psychology. Writing off all psychiatry as pill-pushing is ignorant. Sure, a lot of lazy doctors are content with writing quick prescriptions for Mother’s Little Helper, but you can’t condemn an entire field of study just because it’s produced some incompetent practitioners.

  38. I think Arthur S is a bit of a Freudian, so he sees medication as “cheating” somehow, though I’m caricaturing his view rather. I’m on your side.

    You’re bang on with the doctors though: the studio forced Ray to make sure the script obeyed all the AMA’s instructions and any lines which could conceivably be seen as criticising the docs were ruthlessly cut. Ray retaliated by filming them “always moving in groups, like gangsters.” The uncomfortable space in that image you cite really captures the tension he’s going for.

    Given the censorship he was under, the scene where the doc skips out on Lou’s phone call is an impressive feat of understated critique.

    Glad to hear from you and hope you’ll stick around!

  39. Thanks! I intend do, although I can’t say I’ve much apposite to say about most of the films. I need to get back into watching more.

  40. Since you enjoyed Bigger Than Life, I’d recommend Ray’s In a Lonely Place…

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