« Be Kind Rewind | Main | Coffee Break »

March 01, 2008

Bigger than Life


Nicholas Ray - 1956
B.F.I. Region 2 DVD

The only previous time I saw Bigger than Life was in the early Seventies. This was on a late night black and white television broadcast, pan and scan format. Wide screen television isn't the same as a palatial movie theater with a CinemaScope screen, but it is a bit closer to the way the film was meant to be seen.

Seeing Bigger than Life on the wide screen means having a clearer sense of the physical space between James Mason and Barbara Rush. Mason would also be framed in such a way that he would constantly be bigger, or above, Rush and screen son Christopher Olson. Seeing the film in color meant seeing Barbara Rush's orange dress contrasting against the gray, blue and black clothing worn by the other characters. As is also mentioned by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Jim Jarmusch in the DVD supplement where they converse about Ray and Bigger than Life, Christopher Olson is noticeably wearing a red jacket, just like James Dean in Rebel without a Cause.

bigger than life.jpg

Olson could well be dubbed the littlest rebel. It was in seeing the DVD a second time that I noticed that many of the children exiting the school during the opening credit sequence had red clothing, as if Ray was anticipating the cultural impact that would be made almost ten years later by that generation. In looking back at Ray's films it might be argued that the function of sons is to rebel against their fathers. This may not always be a biological father but a father figure. This can be seen with Farley Granger acting against his criminal "family" in They Live by Night, as well as Jeffrey Hunter's questioning and uncertain Jesus in King of Kings. The most famous scene in Bigger than Life is of Mason's attempt to re-enact the story of Abraham and Isaac from the Old Testament. Bigger than Life can also be viewed as a companion piece to Rebel without a Cause in how Ray looks at middle class families with both hope and despair. When James Dean tells Jim Backus to "pop one" on mother Ann Doran, it's the expression of wanting to believe in patriarchal, traditional roles. Similarly, in Bigger than Life is the dichotomy of the desire for the traditional male role, as idealized by Mason, the impossibility of living up to that ideal, and the fragility of alternate solutions.

Being at cross purposes is both at the core of Ray's life as well as his films. Ray's filmography suggests the conflict between the desire for artistic expression and the approval of commercial success. There is also the shift between the collaboration with political and artistic rebels in Ray's pre-Hollywood career, followed by his early development in Hollywood under the patronage and protection of Howard Hughes, a relationship that kept Ray from being blacklisted or appearing before the House of Un-American Activities. Ray was probably keenly self-aware of the contradictions in his life and work. What a film like Bigger than Life represents is Ray's own vacillation between the comfort of the established, traditional ways of living, and the exhilaration and anxiety of finding one's own direction.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at March 1, 2008 12:33 AM


I don't know if it's mentioned on the DVD -- or anywhere, for that matter -- but you can see Nicholas Ray for an instant in Bigger Than Life. He's there in the reflection on the mirror of James Mason's medicine cabinet. It looks like a flash of light when Mason opens the door, but if you freezeframe the disc you should be able to see Ray behind Mason.

Posted by: Flickhead at March 1, 2008 07:18 AM

Peter, that poster is awesome!

Posted by: girish at March 1, 2008 10:50 AM

Ray: I read about Nick Ray being visible. I'll have to slo-mo that scene. The perfect DVD release would also include the deleted scene with Marilyn Monroe as a nurse.

Girish: Glad you liked the poster. I couldn't do any screen grabs from my laptop as this is a region 2 DVD.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at March 1, 2008 09:49 PM