Tuesday 15 March 2016

Bigger than Life (1956)

Giften i blodet
I seem to have problems with a wide range of movies. Substance abuse movies, child abuse movies, cheap romances and so one. Let me just add another one: Mental illness movies.

This is not new though. Mental illness movies have always freaked me out. It is a lot easier for me to deal with broken limbs, cancer or ulcering wounds than people going bananas in the head. Even when played for comedy I do not think it is that funny. So to get a movie that is about a man going screwy in the head means trouble for me.

“Bigger Than Life” is another Nicholas Ray movie featuring (and produced by) no other than the brilliant James Mason. He is a school teacher living a normal 1950’ies style middle class life with a wife at home and child of, I suppose, nine or ten years, maybe less. Ed Avery is well liked by staff and students alike and the only apparent crack in his life is his secret second job as a taxi dispatcher to make ends meet.

Soon we learn that there is another much larger crack in Ed’s life. He is having seizures and pretty bad ones. At first he tries to hide it, but when he gets an epic scale seizure in front of his wife it is off to the hospital. Specialists are brought in and the verdict is that Ed is suffering from a rare and fatal disease and he has only a short time to live unless he starts on a new experimental medicine, the hormone treatment Cortisone.

The medicine works like magic. Soon Ed is up and about and ready to take up his old life. He is in fact almost too cured. Full of energy, plans, big ideas and big spending, Ed is very happy. Lou, his wife (Barbara Rush) and Richie, his son (Christopher Olsen) chose to enjoy the ride and just be happy dad is home. But Ed is getting addicted to the pills and starts taking more than he is supposed to. As a result he is developing a psychosis. At first it looks like a polar psychosis as he is mainly manic, but later it looks more bipolar as he gets further and further away from reality.

Ed is convinced of his own superiority, to his students, the parents at the PTA, his wife and his son. He has wild plans all round and when people do not follow him he is ready to discard them, divorce his wife or kill his son. He is surrounded by enemies who are plotting against him and his wife’s and friend, Wally’s (Walter Matthau), attempts at helping him is a conspiracy and proof they are having an affair.

There is really only way it can go and a Hollywood ending cannot hide the tragedy for all involved.

I had a colleague who has a manic disorder and his attacks were exactly like watching Ed Avery. At first it may seem funny because it is really wild and makes for great stories, but it is not fun at all and the price tag is incredibly high. It is symptomatic that the manic state enhances elements that are already there, transforming quirks into craziness. Ed does feel superior and he feels stuck in his suburban rut. When he gets the drug superiority become fascist and his disgust with his life becomes wild attempts to escape it.

Who is to blame then? Is it Ed himself for abusing the medicine? Or the doctors who prescribe the medicine and then close the door? Or just tough luck? Nick Ray seems to want us to blame the doctors, they do look like greedy businessmen rather than caring doctors and I can certainly understand the sentiment that their interest is to suck Ed’s money rather than his well-being. I am not so familiar with that sort of health system and that may be why it looks particularly harsh.

I think the agenda of the movie is more in the direction of making us aware of the tragedy of mental disorder and the trap in which the afflicted is caught. “Bigger Than Life” is in that sense a parallel to “Lost Weekend”. The realization of this tragedy is the real impact of the movie and it is devastating. The DVD comes with a conversion between Jim Jarmusch and Jonathan Rosenbaum who discuss the many layers and messages of the movie and I suppose they are right, it is a movie that packs a lot of content. Yet, I am not inclined to watch it again right away, it is simply too taxing.

On a brighter note it is great to see Walter Matthau early in his career. I know him primarily as a comedian so it is interesting to watch him do a serious role. For the rest they all do a nice job, even Christopher Olsen as Richie. He balances the love, hate and fear of his father nicely and as in “The Man Who Knew Too Much” he manages to mostly avoid being annoying.

No doubt “Bigger Than Life” is an interesting and well-made movie and a worthy entry, but it was a hard movie for me to get through and you really need something to pull you up afterwards. Just not Cortisone.


  1. Another one I haven't seen yet. I'm looking forward to it for Nicholas Ray and James Mason. Hope it's not too over the top.

    1. I do not think it is over the top. It is actually pretty well done. The problem for me is the subject matter. It freaks me out.

  2. We'll disagree on this one. That moment on the staircase near the end of the film is something that has stayed with me since I saw this. I was completely taken with this.

    How Mason didn't get an Oscar nomination is completely beyond me. That what happens to Ed is an actual possible Cortisone side effect is just icing on a very dark and disturbing cake.

    1. I have a feeling we actually agree. It is an impressive film with massive, but elegant use of symbols such as the shadows in the picture above. I think it is up there with Lost Weekend and Mason was awesome. The problem as I wrote to Bea is with me, I have a hard time with the subject matter, mental illness especially as real as this, freaks me out completely.

  3. Like Steve, I liked this one, but then I didn't have the personal trigger with mental illness breakdowns coloring my perception.

    1. I guess appreciate and enjoy is not exactly the same thing. It is hard for me to enjoy a movie on mental illness, but it is an incredibly well made film.