Whenever I’m watching a film I love being able to sense the moment when it turns from entertaining to outright enthralling. I love a film that will take a moment to telegraph Margo Channing, turn to the audience, raise an eyebrow, and say “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!” Nicholas Ray’s 1956 melodrama Bigger Than Life is just such a film.
Bigger Than Life tells the story of an overworked schoolteacher who struggles to make a name for himself in the larger academic community after being granted a second chance at life. Well, that’s the polite version. I suppose another way of putting it is that after being diagnosed with a fatal disease, then being treated with a breakthrough miracle drug, an average man sinks into a psychotic meltdown characterized by his megalomaniacal obsession with morality and knowledge. It’s a gripping technicolor drama that skewers the nuclear family over a hotbed of corrupt doctors, overturned suburban values, and some top notch blasphemy.
The moment the film turns great is the moment our schoolteacher, Ed Avery, played by James Mason, gives a rousing speech during a PTA meeting. It’s a speech of the fire and brimstone variety. “Childhood is a congenital disease and the purpose of education is to cure it. We’re breeding a race of moral midgets.” The audience of parents and other teachers take turns at being shocked and awed at what Ed says.
What’s great about this moment isn’t the outrageousness of what Ed is saying or even how people are reacting. What’s really great about this scene is that it is the first scene in the film where we begin to suspect that something’s the matter with Ed. All of the fear and tension that happens in this film comes from the conceit of pushing beyond the bounds of normalcy and into the realm of the other. As a reminder Bigger Than Life was released in 1956; the same year that Don Siegel’s science fiction masterpiece Invasion of the Body Snatchers toyed with this same premise.
It was the fifties and we were suspicious of everyone. Joseph McCarthy even tried to convince us that the stars we loved were acting as underground agents for the communist party. So if Lucille Ball was working against us what was to stop our neighbors or even your own family from doing the same? It was an era of fear and suspicion and while Invasion played with this notion using invaders from space ripped from the pages of a Jack Finney serial; Bigger Than Life brought the fear even closer to home by suggesting that we were the ones changing ourselves and he based it all on “actual events.”
Bigger Than Life is based in part on Berton Roueche’s 1955 article for the New Yorker Ten Feet Tall. In the article Roueche tells the true story of a man who succumbed to a psychotic state after being treated for an illness with a new drug. In the film Ray portrays doctors as people unafraid of abusing or destroying human life to push forward with progress within their own field. Truffaut commented that he thought Ray shot the doctors like gangsters.
Ed’s PTA speech is the base from which Ray springs Bigger Than Life from an entertaining melodrama to a invigorating exploration of what it means to be human and what it takes to live. As Ed puts it “These doctors have figured out how to make us live but there’s still one thing they haven’t figured out. Why?” The tension of the film builds to a stunning and blasphemous climax that I’m still, two days later, reeling from.
I can’t think of enough good things to say about Bigger Than Life, this is a film you need to see.
So what do you think? Have you ever seen Bigger Than Life? Have you ever seen Invasion of the Body Snatchers? Have you ever felt not yourself? Please leave some comments below so that we can continue our discussion of technicolor melodramas, PTA meetings, and psychotic breakdowns.
– Jet Fuel Blogger, Lucas Sifuentes