A life less ordinary

A 1950s melodrama that broke new ground in showing the devastating effects of drugs

Movies about addiction date in interesting ways. Seen today, Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend, whose lurid treatment of alcoholism made the film a bombshell of controversy in 1945 (it may have been the first movie to present alcoholism as a disease rather than a character flaw) and won it a shelfful of awards, looks antiquated now. Its overwrought dialogue and posture of appalled shock at behaviour that subsequent films have made familiar to the point of cliche haven't aged well.

BIGGER THAN LIFE (USA, 1956, colour, 95 minutes) directed by Nicolas Ray and starring James Mason, Barbara Rush, Christopher Olsen and Walter Matthau. In English with optional English subtitles. Extras include a commentary track by Ray expert Geoff Andrew, a discussion of Bigger Than Life by novelist Jonathan Letham, interviews with Nicolas Ray and with his wife Susan Ray, and more. Criterion, Blu-ray or DVD.

The years have also taken a toll on Otto Preminger's once potent The Man With the Golden Arm, which harrowed 1955 audiences with its portrayal of heroin addiction, then a subject that Hollywood considered dangerous. It is probably only a matter of time until recent screen treatments of addiction like Requiem for a Dream, so wrenching when it was released a decade ago, begin to look like souvenirs their era.

Nicolas Ray's Bigger than Life must have been an uncomfortable film for audiences in 1956 when it was first released. It came at a time when the cynical, shadowy dramas made after World War II were yielding to technicolor musicals and high-gloss Douglas Sirk weepers. Although its three lead roles were played by actors who didn't lack 50s-style glamour, its message was a scary one: those new miracle drugs coming out of the labs could be dangerous, and could even drive you crazy.

The idea that new drugs can have unexpected dangers is still very much with us, but it is the way that the movie presents it, as a dramatised case history, that makes Bigger than Life feel dated now. Its portrayal of family life and social relationships seems unnaturally polished and restrained compared to the more nuanced approach that would come later. You notice it all the more in contrast with the brilliant lead performance, which has lost nothing to the years.

The drug that brings the ax down on Ed Avery (Mason, who also produced the film and contributed to the script) and his family is cortisone, familiar enough now but new and unpredictable in its effects at the time Bigger than Life was made. The screenplay was inspired by an article in The New Yorker about the drug's dangers, and they are portrayed here at such a frightening pitch that the film scared off its audience and did weak business at the time of its release. It has only be relatively recently that it has been resurrected and found its way into the classy Criterion catalogue.

Mason's Ed Avery is a teacher who has been suffering from sudden attacks of pain and weakness, a condition that he has tried to hide from his family and coworkers. A major breakdown finally sends him to hospital where he is diagnosed as having an inflammatory disease of the nerves and blood vessels that will inevitably kill him if left untreated. There is only one possible course of treatment, involving the new drug, cortisone. His doctors administer it with severe warnings about its unpredictability, especially when it interacts with other medications, but soon he is up and well, taking the drug in tablet form rather than as injections.

Ray builds the progress of the cortisone's psychological effect on Avery as a sequence of increasingly violent scenes. The first hint of something wrong comes when he takes his wife shopping at the city's most expensive dress shop, buying her, against her will, a collection of outfits way beyond the family's modest means. As his behaviour becomes increasingly grandiose, "bigger than life", he shocks the local PTA with a fierce speech about the savagery of children and begins bullying his young son, demanding a perfection from him that the boy cannot achieve. Eventually he is gobbling the pills and becomes deeply psychotic.

Here, Mason's performance is so carefully shaped that his progressive deterioration seems natural, the drug-released transformation of a tendency that may always have been there. There are clues scattered generously throughout the film showing the sense of containment that the cortisone allows Avery to try to escape. Stuck in his teacher's job with a low income, he covers the walls of his home with travel posters and deflects the attention of a pretty fellow teacher who obviously finds him attractive. None of this is very subtle, but Mason makes it work.

Even viewers who know his work in classics of his early career like Odd Man Out and The Seventh Veil will see it surpassed here. Given his numerous credits as producer and co-screenwriter as well as lead actor, the film seems to have meant a lot to him, and he gives it his best.

Barbara Rush does what she can with her role as Avery's beleaguered wife, but the character's tolerance for her husband's increasingly violent behaviour is hard to credit and makes for exasperating viewing,. The movie seems to accept it on the basis that she is grateful that his life has been spared and knows that the medication can cause problems, but her tendency to retreat from any kind of confrontation as Avery brutalises their son and develops paranoid suspicious about her own faithfulness feels unconvincing.

Christopher Olsen as the Avery son and Walter Matthau as a fellow teacher and family friend seem monochrome in the proximity of Mason's performance. Their characters give off a whiff of 1950s American television.

Criterion's extras include a vintage interview with director Ray, a recent one with his widow, and a fascinating and convincingly argued appreciation of the movie by the American writer Jonathan Lethem, who ranks it among his favourites.

Criterion's Blu-ray transfer is up to their usual industry-leading standards. I bought my copy online from amazon. com.

About the author

Writer: Plalai Faifa
Position: Writer