Monday, January 5, 2009

Movies: Bigger Than Life (1956)

To a savvy contemporary audience, Nick Ray’s over-the-top domestic drama about the negative side affects of experimental “miracle drug” Cortisone for the otherwise terminal rare vascular disease afflicting kind husband and father Ed Avery seems rather like an anti-feminist propaganda film (Father knows best!) littered with product placements by the milk lobby, topped off with a PSA to only take prescribed medicine as directed by your doctor. In fact, in its rigid hierarchy of trust, which demands that one subverts one’s own common sense to the unsound demands of the authority figure (son obeys mother, wife obeys husband, family obeys doctor, even when mother is being bullied, father is suffering from drug-induced psychosis, and doctor isn’t very cautious about the drug’s dangerous side-effects, in spite of knowing about them), the film feels rather hokey, though still terribly funny in a midnight-movie kind of way.

If one stops to consider even for a moment that Lou Avery's stand-by-your-man complicity in Ed’s madness and cruelty is de rigeur for the average American family in the 1950s, one will have trouble enjoying the movie. If instead one revels on the almost-Hitchcockian obsession that lights Ed’s face in the climactic scene, where Lou tries to pit feminine mettle against masculine brute force to protect their son from a sacrificial murder with broken scissors and then gets locked in the closet, only to be rescued by a male family friend who breaks in and physically subdues Ed by brute strength alone, starting a brawl that takes them both tumbling down the stairs and through the banister, turning over a piece of furniture in every room of the house, one can watch the film with the kind of shell-shocked glee that only comes with old movies.

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