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.