Right from the beginning, director Nicholas Ray was America's great cinematic poet of the outsider - his debut feature, They Live By Night (1948), opens with a title crawl informing us that the young lovers are doomed in a world to which they can't comfortably belong. Thus begins one of the most extraordinary careers to flourish (and ultimately nosedive) during the classical studio era, a career that would go on to include masterpieces like In a Lonely Place (1950), On Dangerous Ground (1951), Johnny Guitar (1954), and Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Like his fellow RKO contract director Robert Wise, Ray was a consummate craftsman capable of excellent work across a wide array of styles; he made crime pictures, Westerns, melodramas, and epics and delivered the goods every time. Unlike Wise, however, Ray was incapable of disappearing into his material and making himself subservient to it - Johnny Guitar has a lot more in common with a Nick Ray film noir than it does with anybody else's Westerns.
Aside from a few random projects done for, as Ray would put it, "bread and taxes," his movies are all about the same thing: men, women, or teenagers who suffer from their inability to conform. Even when Ray worked within extremely rigid and popular forms, he bent them to his will to explore this idea. It's why his King of Kings (1961) is one of the greatest of all biblical epics - Ray's heartfelt devotion to the world's misfits and rebels gives his Jesus more passion and urgency than one finds in the more distanced, "respectable" presentations in other films of the era. Indeed, there's no such thing as distance in a Nicholas Ray movie - his style is hotwired to his characters' psyches, and sometimes the torment they go through makes the films themselves almost unbearably intense.
This was never truer than in Ray's best film, the 1956 melodrama Bigger Than Life. On first glance, its hero - a suburban schoolteacher played by James Mason - might seem far removed from the maverick Ray's sensibility. It quickly becomes apparent, however, that Mason is yet another of Ray's misfits, a man desperately trying to exist in his environment even as it suffocates him. Ostensibly, the film is about how addiction changes the schoolteacher, as he begins taking cortisone for a painful affliction and gradually descends into madness due to abuse of the drug. Yet one of the most interesting things about the film is the way that Ray establishes the tensions that exist before Mason ever encounters cortisone - his superficially placid Eisenhower-era existence is a ticking time bomb from the film's opening credit sequence.
That sequence doesn't even include Mason, but it introduces some key ideas relating to his character and his home life. Ray runs the credits over images of schoolchildren fleeing out of the building where Mason teaches: the kids are simultaneously unruly and disturbingly conformist, dressed like little adults in shirts and ties and dresses. At one point a boy and a girl hold hands in imitation of much older kids - there's a sense both of the spontaneity and individuality at the heart of these children, and of the adult culture that will try to snuff it out in favor of suburban conformity. That conformity, we soon learn, is a noose around Mason's neck - the upper middle class lifestyle that he and wife Barbara Rush struggle to maintain is barely sustainable, even with Mason moonlighting as a taxi cab dispatcher.
After establishing that Mason’s existence – and suburban existence in general – consists of constant economic striving, Ray subtly turns Bigger Than Life into a kind of financial horror movie, much like Stuart Rosenberg's later The Amityville Horror. As in that picture, the terror in Bigger Than Life grows as much out of its characters overextending themselves financially as it does from any external factors. Just as the key to understanding Amityville can be found in the scene where James Brolin finds an empty money wrapper after writing a check he can't cover, Bigger Than Life's emblematic moment occurs when Ray cuts to a close-up of one of Mason's medical bills. Part of the movie's universal sense of anxiety comes from the notion that if Mason's illness doesn't kill him the hospital costs will - a notion even more unsettling and relatable today than it was when the film was released.
What makes Bigger Than Life even more unsettling is its conclusion that all of the economic striving on the part of its hero serves no discernible purpose; even before Mason's life is turned upside down, there are clues to the dissatisfaction at the heart of his existence. His house is nice, but it's filled with travel posters - advertisements for places Mason would rather be and will never get to. When Ray cuts to an exterior shot we see that Mason's home is cramped between other houses on a street where no one has any breathing room - they're all living on top of each other. In one truly bizarre scene, Mason follows his wife around the house and turns off lights in rooms she's still doing things in - there's so much simmering, unaddressed hostility that by the time Mason's drug-induced mania leads him to tear into his wife at the dinner table, it feels less like a symptom of the cortisone than the inevitable explosion after years of suppression. Yet Bigger Than Life offers no alternative to the Eisenhower-era ideal of the nuclear family - the unmarried teacher Mason works with is a mess, a woman whose car is always breaking down and who can't make it to work on time. Her lifestyle is no more an ideal than Mason’s.
This all makes for a pretty bleak world view when you get down to it, and yet Bigger Than Life is far from a depressing film - it's massively entertaining, in fact. And this gets to the heart of Ray's true greatness as a director: like Orson Welles, another filmmaker from Wisconsin who got his start at RKO, Ray was both a despairing cynic and a sympathetic humanist. As a man who had traveled the country working for the WPA before he became a director, Ray was as comfortable among the poor as he was with the Hollywood elite, and clearly loved and understood people across a wide range of classes and backgrounds. This love elevates his films, which are always filled with life and energy even though Ray seemed to have zero faith in society and its structures. (One can only imagine what he would have made of the times we live in now!) This tension, between the individual and society, between man's essential goodness and the impossibility of sustaining that goodness in an unforgiving world, and between how man sees himself and how he really is, infuses every frame of Ray's oeuvre - and has never been more potently expressed than in Bigger Than Life.
Jim Hemphill is an award-winning screenwriter and director whose latest film is The Trouble with the Truth. His writings on cinema have appeared in Film Comment, American Cinematographer, and Film Quarterly, and he is the author of a regular column on directing for Filmmaker Magazine.