Bigger Than Life: Somewhere in Suburbia

1. A Park—Night

A man aflame is running directly toward camera.

This image, which comes from Nicholas Ray’s initial treatment for Rebel Without a Cause, might stand at the head of almost any of Ray’s movies, since it so clearly embodies something of their central impulse: a blind urge to break away, to move, to escape a catastrophe that cannot be eluded, a burning already closer than one’s skin.

The treatment continues:

An officer and a bench sitter run toward him, taking off their coats, then begin smothering the flames. As they do, we cut to: a wide-eyed youth of fourteen or fifteen who has been staring at the scene and who now runs behind the trees and disappears.

And with that, both the burning man and the observer disappear from the script, leaving behind a hanging question: Why does the burning man burn?

Since we’re firmly in expressionist territory, there are two possible answers: either an outside force has set him ablaze or, as with Krook in Dickens’s Bleak House, some internal agent has simply unleashed the fire he has always carried inside. Is it the world or is he himself the catastrophe? Ray’s films rattle between these alternatives. The image that he finally chose to place at the start of Rebel—James Dean brought face-to-face at gutter level with the spasmodic cymbal beat of a toy monkey—leans toward the former interpretation (the world as mad mechanism), but the burning man would read rather differently if he dashed into the long, dark street at the opening of In a Lonely Place. There, his tortured trajectory might seem only the outside figuration of a fire that burns submerged in Dixon Steele’s angry, wounded eyes, reflected in the rearview mirror.

Many of Ray’s films begin with this sort of emblematic image, and the first shot following the credits of Bigger Than Life offers a smaller scale but no less dramatic variation: Ed Avery’s hand launches out to perform a habitual action, to pocket the watch that regulates his day and his life. A perfectly banal gesture become suddenly heavy and difficult, as the hand clenches midroute and retreats to his neck. Ray’s driving concerns can seem flat and abstract when summarized, and the films themselves are sometimes top-heavy with explicit statement. What saves them from toppling over is the kind of tactile immediacy evident in this shot, the way it draws on the viewer’s own, unacknowledged, processes of physical empathy to signal in a single arrested movement that this world we’ve only just entered is lined with invisible traps, and that every action is shadowed by the potential for pain.

There’s an urgency behind such images, a propulsive uncertainty that makes Ray’s body of work seem an extended chickie run against conventional structures, whether these be social, psychological, narrative, formal, or even the meanings sometimes inscribed in the scripts. Late in life, he wrote that he had never made a film that satisfied him, but given this penchant for destabilization, what film could possibly meet that criterion? It’s a thoroughly itchy, dissatisfied oeuvre, and the secret success of his best films may lie paradoxically in their flailings and failings.

Such a strange aesthetic could come only from an individual with ample experience of estrangement, and the word tortured recurs like a pain refrain in the reminiscences of those who knew Ray best. Born Raymond Nicholas Kienzle Jr. on August 7, 1911, in Galesville, Wisconsin, he had already experimented with a variety of lives by the time he arrived in Hollywood. He was briefly a student at the University of Chicago in 1931 and then, more briefly still, a member of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin Fellowship in 1933. Ray often spoke of Wright in later interviews, saying his own predilection for the long horizontal lines of the CinemaScope frame might be an indirect reflection of the architect’s influence. But he remained fairly mum about the blowup that led to his departure from the utopian community, noting cryptically that it involved “a battle with Mr. Wright over the word organize.” According to biographer Bernard Eisenschitz, when Ray’s first wife, Jean Evans, interviewed Wright a few years later, she found him “very moralistic and vindictive, and he said that Nick was a homosexual.”

Any murky narrative that might link organization and homosexuality must be left to the reader’s imagination, but for much of his life, Ray was in fact sexually involved with both men and women. As Eisenschitz notes, Ray’s “only public statement on the subject was an impatient shrug of the shoulders in reply to a question about James Dean’s bisexuality: ‘What does that mean, bisexual? He was normal, that’s all.’” While Ray’s own sexual fluidity finally offers no passkey to either his work or his alienation, it does at least mark another border position from which he could view a wide spectrum of human relations with a stranger’s eye.

From the midthirties to the early forties, Ray moved between the worlds of progressive theater and radio, encountering two figures who would turn out to play important roles in his career: Elia Kazan, who brought him to Hollywood to assist on A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and John Houseman, who would produce Ray’s first film, They Live by Night. That movie begins like a bullet—a flamboyant helicopter shot of a speeding car—before dropping down to center on the faces of the first of Ray’s many doomed protagonists. Printed titles inscribe those faces with the stranger’s motto: “This boy . . . and this girl . . . were never properly introduced to the world we live in . . .”

The manic rush of the image, overlaid with the implicit fatality of the statement, signals a mixed emotion new to American cinema—a breathless melancholy that initially found its most receptive critical audience in the young writers of Cahiers du cinéma. André Bazin, with bemused affection, dubbed his junior colleagues the Hitchcocko-Hawksians, but as far as personal identification went, les fils de Nick may have been closer to the truth. For the future directors of the New Wave, Hawks, Ford, Hitchcock, Preminger, et al., were figures to venerate, but Ray was someone to love, both precursor and peer.

It was a team effort: Godard provided the slogans (most famously, “If the cinema no longer existed, Nicholas Ray alone gives the impression of being capable of reinventing it, and what is more, of wanting to”), as well as a rich net of associative connections. Truffaut threw down the challenge (“To anyone who would reject [Hawks and Ray], I make so bold as to say this: stop going to the cinema . . . for you will never know the meaning of inspiration, of a viewfinder, of poetic intuition, a frame, a shot, an idea, a good film, the cinema”). Rohmer placed the inchoate urges of the films within a classical context—Greek tragedy in the case of Rebel (notably in its treatment of “a violence that is dangerous, to be condemned, but also exhilarating and beautiful”). Rivette did the digging, and his piece on The Lusty Men offers perhaps the greatest insight into what this group saw in Ray and what they took from him.

The film is rough, Rivette acknowledges, and to that extent may seem distant from conventional notions of mastery. Yet Ray is a master precisely by virtue of this “clumsiness” that is “the youthful exaggeration of a cinema that is dear to us, where all is sacrificed to expression, to efficacy, to the sharpness of a reflex or a look.” Truffaut had made the surprising linkage of Ray and Bresson, and Rivette concurs, seeing them as “two filmmakers obsessed with the abstract and whose sole concern is always to reach this ideal countenance by the shortest road, and let clumsiness be the road if it is the shortest one . . . I observe a certain dilation of expressive detail, which ceases to be detail so that it may become part of the plot—hence the taste for dramatic close-ups, unexpected within the movement of the scene—and especially the search for a certain breadth of modern gesture and an anxiety about life, a perpetual disquiet that is paralleled in the characters; and lastly, his taste for paroxysm, which imparts something of the feverish and impermanent to the most tranquil of moments.”

I’ve quoted this piece at length because I think it presents the best possible case for unifying what seem like opposed tendencies in Ray’s work. On the one hand, Ray has a knack for disrupting smooth sequences with odd interpolations (think of the unexpected inserts of Bogart’s haggard face that break up the steady shot-reverse-shot flow of the first bar scene in In a Lonely Place, stripping away the surface of the film to perform quick X-rays of despair, or the POV parenthesis of the empty coffee cup during Gloria Grahame’s initial interview with the police). These decisions carry a sense of trying to carve out some space for immediacy and spontaneity inside institutionalized patterns of construction. But against this is a proclivity for heavy symbolic underlining and general schematization, which place the individual movements of the films within thickly determined contours and sometimes iron out any seeming eccentricity of expression in the service of predigested meaning (Bitter Victory, with its bookend dummies, toy town model, and slow-drip exposition, pushes this to such an extreme that it becomes weirdly fascinating).

Complicating this division are the films that strive to encompass a sense of random movement inside their schemata. The first half hour of On Dangerous Ground may be unique in Hollywood cinema of the period for the jagged, darting paths it draws through a richly detailed world. It gives the impression that one could turn down any side street, open any door, and find life going on, and this is mirrored in the action, which keeps pulling away from expected plotlines, refusing to settle into any groove. This opening section was Ray’s own invention, and the shift from the city to the country (which is where he takes up his source novel and settles into a story) seems to have disconcerted everyone involved. Houseman, producing his second film for Ray, confesses in his memoirs that he never did understand the structure and considered it “two films.”

Rivette aligns all of these tendencies inside an overarching push toward abstract essence. It’s a workable concept and finds reinforcement in Ray’s method of instructing actors later in his life, when he took up a position at the Lee Strasberg Institute and urged his students to identify a single goal in each scene and use any means at hand to reach it. But one could also argue that in fact these impulses aren’t unified, that they signal some irreconcilable division in Ray’s outlook that led him to continually posit lines of flight away from trapped scenarios, only to cut them short for a larger fatalism. Mastery somehow seems the wrong word for Ray’s achievement. It may be that the distinctive quality of his best films lies precisely in the way they refuse to come together, in the bizarre split-seam shapes he makes in trying to find forms for his antitheses, in their refusal of mastery.


Bigger Than Life may be Ray’s most controlled film, so it seems only right that it harnesses that discipline to the story of a slow slide into breakdown, fragmentation, and paroxysm. Ray lays his groundwork carefully, establishing in the first section of the movie a world so dominated by variations on gray that any strong color reads as an event and sets the mind scurrying on barely acknowledged, subtly paranoid paths, looking for rhymes and connections.

Several of Ray’s films set up complicated shifts in narrative allegiance, linking the telling initially to one character, only to reverse ground later to show that figure in an outside, alien light. In a Lonely Place is a particularly stark example—Bogart serves as the pivot at the start but gradually loses place to Grahame. That shift could be said to take place in a couple of startling shots: As Dix confesses his love, he towers over Laurel, placing his hand around her neck. The words display the greatest emotional vulnerability he has shown in the film, and the gesture is meant to be tender, but the image carries a strong intimation of domination and violence. It’s an echt Ray moment, since one current doesn’t exactly undercut the other. Rather, they’re there together, joined, if perhaps irresolvably.

Bigger Than Life is a much more ambiguous case. From the start, the camera establishes a connection with Ed Avery’s manic state through the hyperacuity of its own perceptions (those enameled cab ranks, the spindly-legged TV with its tiny, glowing screen set like a jewel in the background, blaring ugly noises). And that connection is never wholly lost. Even before the movie pulls out all its expressionist stops, the house bears some secret-sharer connection to Ed. The travel posters are the most heavy-handed touch, bluntly expressive of his yearnings. More interesting are the ways in which Ray frames Ed and Lou alone in the living room, slightly too low in the frame, to bring out the great, gray, empty expanse of the walls, blank spaces that will later be filled by shadow. And the collapse that leads to Ed’s hospitalization happens in the front doorway, where his hand seizes on the bell, letting the house do his screaming for him.

Ray had an enormous gift for estranging domestic spaces (David Lynch would take the thick, incestuous tensions of Natalie Wood’s home scenes in Rebel and stretch them like taffy in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me). As Bigger Than Life reaches its climax, the house loses its continuities and shatters into distinct zones. The door between the kitchen and the living room is closed. The former territory is given to Lou, who has to spy on the adjoin­ing room like an interloper now that it has become Ed’s arena, stalked by his looming shadow. Shadows are banished when the family gathers in the dining room, but the stiff frontality of the composition hangs mocking quotes around it, and the scene becomes a parody of domesticity, some demon-haunted re-creation of a glossy ad.

The film has often been read as a critique of nuclear family values, and the case is powerful and persuasive. Jonathan Rosenbaum puts it concisely: “Bigger Than Life is a profoundly upsetting exposure of middle-class aspirations because it virtually defines madness—Avery’s drug-induced psychosis—as taking those values seriously. Each emblem of the American dream implicitly honored by Avery in the opening scenes (his ideas about education, his respect for class and social status, his desire for his son ‘to improve himself’) is systematically turned on its head, converted from dream to nightmare, by becoming only more explicit in his behavior.”

There may also be some reexamination of past motifs going on here: Richie’s red jacket isn’t the only point of connection between this film and Rebel. The biggest muddle of the earlier film was its mixed attitude toward masculinity. As Stewart Stern says, Dean’s character “was an attempt to define masculinity in a different way, at a time when it seemed to be leather and boots. The kids caught that. They caught the undercurrent of sweetness in Jim Stark and in the actor who portrayed him, and the longing for a lost, loving world where people could drop their bravado and treat each other gently.” The mansion idyll provides a little glimpse of that other world, whether lost or yet to be discovered, and begins to propose an alternate family structure built on its model.

As often in Ray, this flight is shot down shortly after takeoff, and Dean is steered back toward his family under the arm of a newly masculinized patriarch. Ray was quite explicit on this point, saying to an interviewer during shooting that Jim Stark’s confusion stems from the fact that his father “fails to provide the adequate father image, either in strength or authority.” The silliness of the film is in its sporadic linkage of weakness and femininity (Jim Backus in that awful apron).

Bigger Than Life, then, might be said to pose the question, What would happen if the patriarch returned as an archetype, in all his inexplicable strength? Ed tries on a number of patriarch roles in the film, but they all prove too small. He’s the cheery father of the Oldsmobile ads when he takes his family on their shopping expedition, but somehow his forced smile and slightly sweaty face push past the smug comfort that’s a prerequisite for the part. Ed the athlete fares no better, defeated by the degeneracy of his offspring. Ed the instructor puts in long hours but winds up thwarted by the meddling of his inadequate wife. The church service offers yet another possibility—the forgiving father who welcomes the return of his prodigal son—but Ed rejects such “fuzzy-minded” permissiveness almost instantly, flipping to the Old Testament to find a father with a stiffer spine.

He lands, of course, on Abraham, Kierkegaard’s “father of faith.” In fact, Kierkegaard anticipates Bigger Than Life, and specifically the disjunctive tones of its climax, in Fear and Trembling. Pondering the challenge to ethics offered by the story of Abraham and Isaac, he wonders what would happen if the story of God’s demand was overheard by the wrong party, say “a man suffering from sleeplessness”: “then the most terrifying, the most profound, tragic, and comic misunderstanding is close at hand . . . The tragic and comic make contact here in absolute infinitude.” This contact occurs in the film, too, in the uneasy admixture of horror-movie lighting, loud carnival music, and an awkward, almost slapstick tussle that tips over the couch in its course through the living room, only to right it again on the return journey.

It may be, though, that the cosmic scope of the film’s blasphemy has yet to be fully appreciated. What Ed is finally proposing, in all the rigor of his madness, is a rewriting of the New Testament—a sort of inverse Crucifixion. He realizes that killing his son is a morally abhorrent act, but he sees also that his son seems destined to bring every sort of chaos into the world. Such circumstances demand the greatest sacrifice of all, the sacrifice of himself. Or Himself, since Ed has finally grown to such a stature that the only role scaled to his contours is that of God the Father. Somewhere in suburbia, the order of creation is turning over.

Having gone to such metaphysical extremes, the film couldn’t possibly resolve itself, it seems, especially within the confines of Hollywood’s Production Code. And so it proves: the conclusion satisfies no one, and that’s what’s good about it. As scripted and scored, it certainly sounds like a happy ending—sanity regained, the family unit restored—but the effect of a harmonious resolution is resoundingly slurred through dissonance in the staging.

There is, to start, Lou’s outburst to the doctors. Her words are perfectly reasonable, but under Ray’s direction, Barbara Rush bears down on them with a hysterical ferocity matched only by Ed himself during his highest flights. There is the peculiar repetition of the word faith, highly charged after the aborted passion play we’ve just witnessed. The disconcerting cuts to Richie beneath the red light, the strong shadows of barred windows thrown behind the doctors and the family, all seem to indicate that we’re still in horror-movie hell, even as the score heaves toward the heavens. The last shot of the film, the family triangle locked in tight embrace, is set off-balance by the strong shadow of the extinguished light fixture on the left of the frame (“Turn out the sun!” was Ed’s order on awaking). Through all of these expressionist flourishes, Ray highlights the cracks in his own construction.

He later expressed two regrets about the film: that he named the drug that served as the catalyst for Ed’s psychosis (thus potentially bringing the story down to ground, as nothing more than a case history) and that, because of pressure from the medical establishment, he couldn’t be rougher on the doctors. Certainly, his point of departure, Berton Roueché’s 1955 New Yorker article, provided plenty of ammunition for the latter (in that actual case history, the Ed equivalent wasn’t himself responsible for the rising dosages of cortisone; rather, his doctor kept upping the pre­scription, with the flabbergasting rationale that he wanted to determine his patient’s “maximum tolerance”). As the film stands, Ray makes his attack primarily through skewed staging and odd interpolations. Truffaut sharply noted in his review that Ray films the doctors like gangsters, and in this respect, particular attention should be paid to the ghoulish, black-haired figure who gets a rather unaccountably held reaction shot when Ed first prepares to leave the hospital, introducing further subterranean currents of paranoia into the film. He pops up again at the end, right before the final clench, closing the door on the family reunion and pausing to give his colleague the most ghastly, cavernous smile.

Thanks to D. Cairns and Spencer T. Campbell.

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