Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Bigger Than Life (1956) and Its Influence on Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)

Monday, March 29, 2010

Bigger Than Life (1956) and Its Influence on Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)

by Tony Dayoub

In his films, Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a Cause) often contemplates the psychodynamic turbulence hidden behind facades of normalcy. Bigger Than Life, with its focus on the degradation of a patriarch, Ed Avery (James Mason), speaks to the repression which plagues the seemingly typical fifties nuclear family. In this way the movie looks forward to those of another director, David Lynch. Though he has explored similar themes throughout his work, most notably in Blue Velvet (1986), it is in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me where Bigger Than Life's influence is most strongly felt.

A prequel to the landmark television series, Lynch's film is preoccupied for much of its running time with the circumstances behind the murder which had launched the original show. On TV, the causes behind homecoming queen Laura Palmer's murder are found to be supernatural, a demonic possession which absolves her father, prominent attorney Leland (Ray Wise), of much of the culpability for the heinous crime. Fire Walk with Me plays with the notion that Leland, psychotic though he may be, is the one to blame for his own actions, with the demon implied to be more of a symbolic representation of the evil within him, a signifier which only a visionary few can see.

This new, more realistic (the qualifier "more" is necessary since FWWM is still fairly fantastical) prism applied to the TV characters frees Lynch to look at psychosexual reasons behind Laura's murder more clearly. Though genial and outgoing in public, the Palmer family household has the eerie stillness of tension. Sarah (Grace Zabriskie), Leland's wife, is a drug-addled manic depressive who reacts passively to the weird dynamic whenever they sit down for dinner. Laura (Sheryl Lee) leads a double life, high-school student by day, prostitute by night. And Leland is an obsessive compulsive, interrogating Laura about the cleanliness of her fingernails during one frightening incident at supper in a way that suggests a control-hungry despot with more intimate knowledge of his daughter Laura than even she is fully conscious of.

Bigger Than Life's Ed, a repressed schoolteacher, is not motivated by such troubling spiritual torments. What bedevils him is physical, pains that cause him to double over which eventually lead to a terminal diagnosis giving him less than one year. In one spookily lit scene which anticipates the red-curtained room where Leland could coexist with his personal demon, Ed stands behind an x-ray screen literally exposing his core with curtains cast red by a darkroom light. Ed is prescribed a controversial new drug that should ease his pain and may extend his lifespan.

At first, the effects of the drug are beneficial, making him feel "ten feet tall." It also has the unexpected side effect of dispelling the secrets between Ed and his wife—for a little while, at least; his sneaking off a few afternoons a week to moonlight as a taxi dispatch is interpreted by his wife, Lou (Barbara Rush) as Ed having an affair until his hospitalization brings it out into the open. But as Ed starts to overmedicate in order to sustain his growing sense of superiority he descends into a state of megalomania. The underlying problem between Ed and Lou, a lack of communication, returns with a vengeance. As Ed asserts obsessive control over his family; demanding Lou wear expensive dresses they can't afford; starving their son Richie when he can't complete a difficult math tutorial created by Ed; threatening on more than one occasion to leave Lou if she doesn't get with the program; he edges closer to violence and psychosis.

The respective arenas where each drama plays out are virtually identical in their layout, dining room prosceniums adjoining a living room at the foot of stairs in a two-story home. If most of the histrionics take place in that communal room, the actual crimes are perpetrated upstairs. It is upstairs that Ed goes to murder Richie—a horrific act ultimately unconsummated—after a sermon at church makes him re-assess the biblical morality play of Abraham and Isaac in relation to his overblown appraisal of his family's flaws.

Laura is not as fortunate as Richie; frequent nights are spent unsuccessfully resisting her father's sexual violations in her room. Where Ray's antihero Ed self-medicates in an attempt to establish order, Lynch's far more sinister Leland can only impose it by drugging his wife and daughter in order to make them compliant. Leland's remorse eccentrically rears its head at strange moments in which he bursts into tears. This symptom of the depravity which afflicts him is first found in Ray's earlier film when Ed's newfound cure-all causes an hormonal imbalance which makes him burst into tears in the family den, a far more devastating sign of weakness in his present, the fifties, which he unsuccessfully tries to hide from his family.

Ultimately, Bigger Than Life and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me find different conclusions in their similar investigations. Fire Walk with Me determines that suburbia is an excellent blind which the depraved can use as a refuge. Leland Palmer manipulates his surroundings to form a cover for his actions. Ed Avery's desire for grandiosity, an escape from the dull life in the suburbs, spurs his self-destructive addiction. Bigger Than Life blames the deadening effects of secluding oneself in the suburbs the causal factor in his family's near-destruction.

Bigger Than Life is now available on Criterion Blu-ray and DVD.


Nostalgia Kinky said...

Wow, Fascinating stuff. I have never seen BIGGER THAN LIFE and it seems I need to rectify that asap!

Stephen said...

Very interesting, Tony.

I didn't know of the Ray film but I will try and see it. Then I'll be able to appreciate this article even more.

Fire Walk With Me is, in my opinion, one of the greats.

Unknown said...

Good call, Tony. As I was watching BIGGER THAN LIFE I thought of FWWM as well. In fact, I would go one further and say that James Mason's character starts off, when he first takes the drug, liberated a full of life a la Lester (Kevin Spacey) in AMERICAN BEAUTY (there is even a dinner scene that is framed exactly like the one in AB) but as the film progresses, Mason's character transitions over into Leland Palmer territory.

Tony Dayoub said...

I truly think this would be a perfect fit for your sensibilities.

I agree. FIRE WALK WITH ME grows in my estimation each time I revisit it.

I see the thematic connection you mention regarding AMERICAN BEAUTY. The difference is I'm not sure the filmmakers behind BEAUTY saw BIGGER THAN LIFE in anticipation of that production. With FIRE WALK WITH ME, I'm almost certain that it had a direct influence.

Thanks for stopping by.

Unknown said...


I agree! Lynch has been notoriously cagey when talking about his cinematic influences but that had to have been a primary one. The connections are too eerie.

Ryan Kelly said...

Tony, great piece about two incredible movies, and you find a unique common ground between them. And, is it just me, or do Wise and Mason actually look a little alike? Creepy!

I've been enjoying your pieces on Ray very much. Bigger Than Life is the only Ray I'm really huge on, though.

Tony Dayoub said...

I'm not sure cagey is the right word, because that implies a deliberate silence. I met Lynch in 2008 and had a chance to ask him whether certain filmmakers or films were influential to certain works of his, such as Bergman's PERSONA, Wilder's SUNSET BOULEVARD, etc. He seemed to respond honestly when he admitted that he's seen plenty of films and he's sure that some of the imagery has seeped into his work. But he didn't consider himself even a casual cinephile and has never looked at another film with the intention of paying homage or patterning after it.

So I'll just chalk my theory on BIGGER THAN LIFE up to something he saw which may have spurred some ideas, or maybe it didn't influence him as much as it did co-writer Robert Engels or cinematgropher Ron Garcia. It'd be a mistake to attribute its effect strictly on Lynch (despite my inclinations as an auteurist to do so).

Tony Dayoub said...

Thanks for keeping up, Ryan. I'm just getting to know Ray's work beyond REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE and KING OF KINGS, probably his two most widely seen films in present day. But so far, I haven't been disappointed. I've always been a huge fan of JOHNNY GUITAR, and IN A LONELY PLACE made me a believer in the popular appraisal of Ray as a maverick and an auteur in a time when the power center behind a film rested with the studio.

I plan on reviewing three more films of his in the next couple of weeks if readers want to keep up: THE TRUE STORY OF JESSE JAMES, which plays tomorrow at noon EST on Fox Movie Channel; PARTY GIRL, now available through the Warner Archive Collection; and KING OF KINGS which plays at 5pm EST Easter Sunday on TCM.

Ryan Kelly said...

Johnny Guitar is another of my favorites of his. I just think that at times his movies movies tended to collapse under the weight of his sociological import (not always, obviously). But he was indeed a maverick, and what amazes me most about him is the way he worked, if not independently, then just outside the film industry, which allowed him to make films his way.

A Ray that I don't think gets enough credit is They Live By Night, his first movie, based on the book Thieves Like Us. Altman's adaptation if better, I think, but Ray's movie is definitely worth a look.

And thanks for the heads-up on the upcoming Ray's. Definitely be setting the DVR for those. Never seen The True Story of Jesse James, and haven't seen King of Kings since I was a kid, so that should be interesting.

Sam Juliano said...

I would have to add the nihilist noir ON DANGEROUS GROUND as one of Ray's (and the genre's) greatest achievements. And the score by Bernard Herrmann is one of teh two or three greatets in the entire history of the cinema.

Enjoyed reading the excellent assessment here on a vintage Ray, which came to my doorstep yesterday in blu-ray.

Favorite Rays:

1 On Dangerous Ground
2 In A Lonely Place
3 They Live By Night
4 Bigger Than Life
5 Rebel Without A Cause
6 Johnny Guitar
7 The Lusty Men
8 Born to be Bad
9 Party Girl
10 The Savage Innocents

Tony Dayoub said...

I'm sure I'll be exploring the rest of Ray's work in the coming months, so we'll see how close our rankings come.

For right now, though, it seems like you are ranking REBEL a lot lower than I'd anticipate. Could it be the film's overexposure and the aggrandizing of Dean's legend has colored your opinion of it?

Sam Juliano said...

"For right now, though, it seems like you are ranking REBEL a lot lower than I'd anticipate. Could it be the film's overexposure and the aggrandizing of Dean's legend has colored your opinion of it?"

You know something Tony, as much as I do genuinely love the Rays I have on top, you have an excellent point there. There is always an aversion to go with the film widely celebrated by the masses. I don't always go that way, but in this instance I may be guilty.

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Paul Duane said...

Outside of FWWM, the story of Leland Palmer takes a theological leap almost as bold as the extraordinary megalomania that seizes James Mason: I haven't re-watched it in years, but the death of Leland, in a room whose sprinklers are flowing, seems to release an awful knowledge of what he's done, and Dale Cooper attempts to send his soul safely to the next life by reciting the Tibetan Book of the Dead while cradling the dying man's head in his lap.

I'm not entirely convinced by the correlation between the two movies, but Lynch's work evokes so much that it's fruitful and enjoyable to juxtapose its imagery with an awful lot of movies (William Witney's The Bonnie Parker Story struck me as thoroughly Lynchian when I saw it, though I'd bet Lynch has probably never seen it).

Also: those hairstyles (Ray Wise's, James Mason's), and eyebrows...