Tuesday, August 7, 2012

BIGGER THAN LIFE (Nicholas Ray, 1956, USA)

A soft spoken schoolteacher faces the constricting reality of a fatal diagnosis, but his cure may kill him first. Director Nicolas Ray sets the fuse and detonates the nuclear family unit, imploding the middle-class mores of bourgeoisie suburbia.

Ed Avery is a timid workaholic, holding a full time teaching job and moonlighting as a dispatcher without his wife’s knowledge, unable to support his habitat on one salary. He begins suffering debilitating pains that tear through his body though he tries to bear this cross alone. Ed is diagnosed with a rare incurable disease, a death sentence unless an experimental drug can stave off the symptoms. Soon, he is addicted to Cortisone and the tiny pill that gets him so high also proves to be his downfall. Ed descends into a junkie lifestyle, his personality altered, lying and deceiving for his next fix, a man on a medicated mission whose future is only a prescription away.

James Mason imbues his character Ed Avery with an air of repressed anger and rigid class respectability, molded by a doublespeak society that holds illusion as reality. When his personality tectonically shifts, Mason seethes with unbridled rage and narcissism, a cipher that utters truth acknowledged but abandoned by his peers. His speech during a parent/teacher conference would be funny if it wasn’t so convincing. This transition is wonderfully realized by contrasting this transformation with the sublime honesty of a husband who can’t imagine that his wife believes he may be cheating on her. Ray depicts the average American household down to the minutest detail; from cluttered kitchen with a rusty hot-water heater to the mantle littered with deflated memories. He subverts this iconic imagery by filming from low-angle and lighting the characters in a nourish fashion, so shadows dominate their living counterparts. Ray allows the Cinemascope compositions to create a vacuum between people, an invisible barrier that separates both worlds.

Ed has stopped taking from the tiny bottle: it now takes from him. Madness has finally consumed him and it’s difficult to tell if the drug permanently damages his perceptions, or only awakens the sleeping giant of his super-ego. 

Final Grade: (B+)