Oh my goodness, this movie! Where to begin?? I first saw Bigger Than Life in a class on Melodrama (it was classified as the “male” subsection of that genre), and was struck by how icky and claustrophobic and trapped it made me feel, almost physically. Those sensations did not disappear on the second viewing, and indeed were almost worsened because I knew what was coming. What I was able to notice more clearly this time around was the film’s opening: of course, any film’s opening is terribly important, and if done well, will introduce and sort of sum up the themes and feelings of the film as a whole, as the opening credits sequence of In A Lonely Place does so excellently. In Bigger Than Life, an oddly-fast-moving tracking shot pushes the camera, and therefore the viewer, in towards the double doors of a large brick building, which, when hordes of screaming, well-dressed children pour out, is revealed to be a school. But what struck me particularly on this viewing was the intense velocity of this tracking shot, the great momentum it somehow conveys in a very short amount of time and space; audiences have the feeling of being compelled forward beyond their control, by a force which they cannot see or fight, only feel. This becomes especially disconcerting when it appears that we and the camera are about to zoom right into the closed doors, straight into destruction. Such movements and sensations perfectly initiate audiences into the film’s cycles of addiction and megalomania and make the Rayean theme of vicious, beyond-your-control, bigger-than-you cycles almost physically apparent; they also viscerally introduce the feeling of a sickening lack of control and of terrifying dread which permeate this film, which worsen horribly along with Ed’s Cortisone dependence, his mounting “psychosis,” and his increasingly-alarming and –dangerous delusions of grandeur.
What was interesting to me in this film, given its very explicit depiction of such male “psychosis,” of a man and his family being destroyed by his out-of-control masculinity, was the Rayean preference for focusing on the repercussions, the perceptions, and the impacts of (male) violence, of showing it almost indirectly, or through another figure. Even though Ray clearly shows us multiple instances of Ed going mad and the physical fight between him and Wallie in which they literally crash through the highly symbolic staircase (here breaking Ed’s megalomaniacal patriarchal, hierarchal hold on and control over the family??), he privileges shots of Lou, the oddly-silent, pretense-keeping wife, and their young son Richie over those of Ed himself. Ray’s characteristic triangular relations return prominently in this film, as does his orchestration, reconfiguration, and reorientation of people in physical and demarcated space: characters frequently move around each other through various rooms of the house, and are framed/trapped in this domestic space by hallways, door frames, and corners. But triangulation becomes especially important in Ray’s frequent uniting of mother and son in their own shot in relation/comparison to the lone figure of Ed, isolated and especially domineering in his own separate(d) shot, now the terrifying father figure instead of the loving dad. It also marks the shifting relations and tensions between the members of the family as they try as much as possible to stay on Ed’s good side and non-confrontationally endure his crazy rules, “teaching,” and “programming.” And because of this focus on the spatial and emotional tensions and relations between these people (as Ed becomes bigger than life, both figuratively and literally in Ray’s framing and blocking), Ray can focus on the effect such behavior and boundless masculinity have on Lou and on Richie. Often Ed will leave the room and the scene, while the camera holds on a close-up of Lou’s face, trying to impassively hide her emotions yet still revealing her fear and unsurety and pain. In a last striking example, as the doctors tell her about Ed’s having to go back onto the crazy-making Cortisone, that he might be psychotic and might never again be “the Ed she remembers,” their voices are heard in voice over as the camera stares at Lou’s face and reactions, registering the impact of such a diagnosis on her.
Ed’s reign of terror, his extreme patriarchal obsessions with male performance, including math problems and football, are also highlighted in terms of their effect on Richie, rather than being depicted wholly for their own sake. In many of Ed’s characteristic leavings-of-the-shot, Richie is left alone and hurt, missing the nice father he used to have and feeling the disappointment and shame in being dismissed by this new authoritarian father. Now too “big” to even fit in the screen, Ed’s legs dominate the left foreground of the frame as his son lies on the ground, having failed to catch the fiercely-thrown football again. He looks up at his father, whose head is loftily out of frame, in the clouds among the gods, and tears fill his eyes; his father (‘s legs) walk away and Richie is left to cry more freely, to hug the prize football like a Teddy bear or like Jim’s stuffed monkey in Rebel, needing comfort from the father that no longer exists and being forced to hug the last remaining souvenir of that man, which has also perversely become the symbol of this new father’s domineering oppression. Ray’s camera also closely watches Richie’s face as he is literally placed in the middle of his parents, between their arguing and struggles, such as at the dinner table during the infamous milk moment and the next morning on a pew at church. Neither parent looks at him, while he very clearly (and emotionally painfully for audiences) turns his head back and forth between them, looking up at them hoping to both be recognized and to recognize his loving, caring parents in the dehumanized, now-stranger-like figures of his mom and dad. Ina particularly heartbreaking moment, after the milk, Ray shows us the hurt and sadness on Richie’s face as he hears his father say he is as good as divorced from his mother, the camera zooming into the boy’s face in a move which mirrors the opening tracking shot into the school doors and conveying a similar feeling of powerlessness and forces beyond ones control, here as specifically focalized around Richie. Ray also shows us the confusion he feels at church, a place meant to provide emotional comfort, listening to a sermon on (divine) “Fathers” and sadly realizing the gap that has arisen between the duty a father owes his son, the way his dad used to treat him, and the bigger-than-life father he has now.