“Classic” is a term we throw around a lot regarding film and its history. It’s usually used to canonize something of a certain age that a viewer considers interesting or groundbreaking in some way. But, even when given that definition, you are still left with a term that is extremely abstract. So, in order to come up with something that at least resembles some sort of concrete definition, let me present an additional abstract idea that I have thought about regarding classic film: the idea of relevance.
Take Psycho (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1960), a film that’s relevant in the way it uses film techniques in order to instill anxiety and fear in audiences unlike ever before to a point where it inspired an entire film genre. Or, take Duck Soup (dir. Leo McCarey, 1933) a biting satire that still skewers modern nationalism and patriotism. In all of these regards (technical proficiency and pertinent themes), Bigger Than Life (dir. Nicholas Ray, 1956) may be one of cinema’s greatest classics.
Bigger Than Life is the story of a schoolteacher and traditional nuclear family man named Ed Avery (James Mason) who comes down with a serious illness with a grim prognosis. In order to treat his illness, his doctor prescribes him with cortisone pills, a “miracle drug” that eventually makes his illness subside. However, he very quickly starts to get addicted to the pills and starts to experience very intense psychosis as a side effect of his substance abuse. This psychosis only increases in severity as he goes on financially irresponsible shopping sprees, delivers quasi-fascist rants about the mental faculties of children, and eventually attempts to murder his son. The film ends with Ed embracing his family right after his doctor tells them that he may never be the same and that he may eventually slip back into psychosis. It’s a dark, ambiguous ending for a film full of dread and ferocity.
Underneath all of that dread is a scathing indictment on traditional values. Obviously, the whole film is set up behind a statement of the opioid addiction that tends to be prevalent in middle class suburbia, but it’s what the opioid addiction does to Ed where the real subtext comes in. The cortisone strips Ed of his preconceived notion of domestic comfortability, unveiling the frustrations of the typical 1950s suburbanite. The idea of the patriarchal breadwinner is also key to the film’s message as it seems not only toxic to Ed’s own health (Ed feels the need to constantly be working, even when just leaving the hospital), but also to his own family (when Ed’s psychosis ramps up to a point of mental and emotional abuse, they are forced to deal with it in secret so the illusion of their family does not shatter). Not only the patriarchal element of it, but the film also addresses wider ideas of capital and modern consumer values through his psychosis. He works two jobs to sustain his suburban life, but the stress of the constant work drives him to illness. In order to stave off his illness so he can keep working, he takes pills that are literally driving him insane. In order to survive in the modern world, you work yourself to death, or you go insane in an attempt to stay alive.
Ray railed against these pillars of society in the 1950’s. However, these are still prevalent institutions more than 60 years later. They also don’t seem like they are going away anytime soon, but the frustrations have only been inflamed. Patriarchal breadwinners are beginning to become less dominant in society, but people working multiple jobs to make a living wage and middle class opioid addiction have only increased in the years since. The themes of Bigger Than Life haven’t gone away and seem like they are here to stay.
But Bigger Than Life is not all theme. Given the fact that it presents itself as a family melodrama, it is also a surprisingly effective masterclass in filmmaking, both in the technical sense and in tone. Ray used the CinemaScope lens, a widescreen anamorphic lens usually used to shoot westerns and other epics, to shoot the film. This adds dead space and operatic shadows to the suburban home, creating a sense of artificial materialism and anxiety. The film’s melodramatic framing also creates a heightened sense of drama that adds to the feeling of everything in the world of the film feeling a thin facade for something bleaker. Bigger Than Life sets a precedent for smaller dramas to use dead space to create anxiety (like Thoroughbreds (dir. Cory Finley, 2018) and The Nest (dir. Sean Durkin, 2020)) or using melodrama to create horror (like many of the films of David Lynch).
Bigger Than Life is incredibly relevant. The prescient themes of Ray’s film and its technological proficiency and innovation make it a film that has not been forgotten over the last 65 years. For these reasons, I imagine it will not be forgotten over the next 65 years. If one were to define classic cinema as I have posited here, Bigger Than Life is a bonafide classic.
Bigger Than Life is not streaming on any VOD, but is included in the Criterion Collection.