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Is It Red To Be Normal?

Bigger Than Life (1956), directed by Nicholas Ray –
Re-released by The Criterion Collection on DVD and Blu-ray disc
by Rita Valencia

“When a friendly, successful suburban teacher and father (James Mason) is prescribed cortisone for a painful, possibly fatal affliction, he grows dangerously addicted to the experimental drug, resulting in his transformation into a psychotic and ultimately violent household despot.” (IMDb.com)

The word normal is of relatively recent origin, coming into usage in 1828 to mean “conforming to common standards.” The notion of a such a thing as a common standard to which behavior conforms is so deeply ingrained in us that it resists analysis, and yet, it is a uniquely contingent idea, falling apart with the least pressure. In the course of a day, one can move from home to school or work, to recreation, to cultural or religious activities and cross through different zones of “normalcy” where entirely different sets of behavior are expected. The fact that it was 1828 before this word became part of the vernacular hints at its scientistic origins, in new sociologies and psychologies that measured, tested and categorized human behavior. The concept of normal appears to be deeply connected to systems of social control and to rationalism, although the latter connection is ironic, for normative behavior is culturally determined and based on a subtle web of largely irrational behavioral cues which go mostly unstated (and thus elude people with maladies such as autism or schizophrenia). People are said to be behaving “rationally” when they are acting in a normal way, and so the “rational” conflates with the conventional, and meaning quickly evaporates as the actual agenda for normality emerges: social control. Intrinsic to the concept of normality is the silence of fear, anxiety and dread–hidden, but badly.

Nicholas Ray, in his 1956 melodrama “Bigger Than Life“, creates a mythical normality, infused with reason and rationality, as a frame for a tale about the descent into madness and disorder. If his characters were any more “normal” they would become self-parodies; as it is, my fascination with this artifact of the 50’s lies with its creepy flatness and lack of any UNexplainable behaviors or feelings. Once his illness is diagnosed and his pharmaceuticals dispensed by the gravely rational doctors–the heirophants of this terrifying order–the madness that overtakes James Mason is an entirely sensible plot development. Although Mason’s behavior is aberrational, there is no mystery as to its origins in the demands of a normal life, where he has to work two jobs to make ends meet, and breaks down physically under the pressure. It seems that the appearance of normalcy entails social and economic dysfunction, although the larger implications of this dimension of the story go unexplored in favor of lingering in a domestic terrain of almost bloodless virtue. (An interesting quote of Ray from another project, “It’s not blood, it’s red”.)

Ray’s zone of normality in Bigger Than Life is a protean handiwork of veneers and signs, a clinically perfect film vocabulary, much admired by Godard and other New Wave directors. The coming darkness of Mason’s breakdown is presaged by a scene in which Mason follows his wife through the rooms of their home turning out lights on her. She is angry and suspicious of him because of his unexplained absences (which of course have an innocent explanation), but he is oblivious to her feelings in his desire to seduce her–a scene which Mason masterfully infuses with subtle menace. Sometimes Ray’s use of symbolism is clumsily overt, as the bathroom mirror which Barbara Rush breaks in a fit of pique over her husband’s irascibility, followed by a camera angle of his face in the cracked shards. More successful are the architectural details. The house is small, and movement is tight, especially around the water heater, standing in the passage from kitchen to dining room; an anomalous, intentional, eyesore, streaming drips of rust from its cap. The ugliness of this object is a silent marker of a family in economic stress. Color is a character: red in Bigger Than Life is a sumptuous visual sign pointing the way to the madness that unfolds. In the opening scene, a cascade of children coming out of the school where Mason teaches are spattered with red articles of clothing. Mason develops a taste for red during his spree of psychosis, insisting that Barbara Rush pour herself into in a stunning Dior party dress, hardly the thing to wear to church, though it makes for a brilliant image.

The neat equivalencies between symbol and symbolized is steadfast, and although sometimes dull (a word which emerges from the generally aseptic dialogue along with the famous, all-time-great line “God was wrong”) it creates a compelling unity of style and content. There are moments in this film which quickly graduate to a sort of postmodern fever dream. The most notable is when James Mason, emerging from a psychotic crisis where he has fancied himself the Biblical Abraham about to slay his son, wakes from his delirium and he claims to have seen Abraham Lincoln. Then, with his family close, he recalls which Abraham he is actually talking about, and remembers the horror he came so close to perpetrating. Conflating of a Biblical figure of such intense gravity as Abraham with the patriotic icon of Lincoln, our own American saint, could only have occurred to the minds of successful Hollywood screenwriters engaged in a rare moment of free association. (Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum wrote story and screenplay, with several others “uncredited” including Clifford Odets and James Mason himself). The staunch rationalism of this mythic story serves to define the ethos of its era and simultaneously, with its curiously disturbing message about how easily the nuclear family can devolve to mayhem and madness, belies the dull verities of “normal” society’s values. The great irony here is how normality, which is the moral determinant of all action in this film, is subverted by delusional promises of science (pharmacology in this case) and by a madness so clearly driven by socioeconomic distress. Given the inevitable ramifications of the psychosis portrayed here, the neat conclusion of this film is uniquely unbelievable. The nuclear family of the post-war decade, along with its the normality myths, would ultimately prove fragile, delicate and filmy as the celluloid on which Bigger Than Life was exposed.

Comments

  1. john steppling says:

    Good piece Rita…………and a favorite film of mine. But its hard to talk about this film without noting that its shot in Cinemascope — and this was Ray’s real exploration of scope compositions and of its potential for creating just what the film title suggests ( a fact not lost on Godard and the rest of the frog critics).

    Its also a quintessentially Fifties era film — much as guy spoke of revolutionary road and i mentioned Sirk……the reality of non period 1950s films…..meaning those made at that time from within, is startling. Sirk warrents a comparison with Bigger Than Life in fact. For Sirk the emotional deadness was endemic and expressed in the muted whispering of rock hudson and the blankness of bob stack, while for Ray the excess was always the method to over turn the rock of repression and dissect the slugs under-neath. Eisenhower era pathologies of white america. For both sirk and ray the surface normalcy was always toxic and finally always sexually mediated.

    Also my only other note is that the broken mirror might be seen as a shattering image —- a mise en scene by product and not primary metaphor…………again, as this was a very archetypal (as you point out) bit of architectural cinema………but maybe Im not even making sense here…………….but nice to talk about this film again………..along with In a Lonely Place, the two best films of ray.

  2. Richard Davis says:

    Rita, fascinating review choice & review. One of my all-time faves. Some decades (?) ago, I remember sitting stunned in my AFI theater seat after The End, partly because of the return-to-normal ending, which seemed somehow appropriate. Not to mention the knock-out color scope compositions and James Mason, the best drug addict on film (cf. A Star is Born). The red is flooding back now. I’ll see it again soon.
    Pair it with Sirk’s There’s Always Tomorrow, about a clueless family man who is suddenly…alienated. A recent viewing had a transparently false happy-reconciled-family ending. I was shocked because I remembered (dreamt, imagined?) from years ago a very different one. The wife (Joan Bennett) sternly intones “Help your father, children.” Two teen-age children lift by his arms a dazed, wobbly husband (Fred MacMurray) out of his armchair and he hobbles forward. The End

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