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.
“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.