Matters of Survival: A Note on In a Lonely Place & Bigger Than Life

In a Lonely Place (1950) and Bigger Than Life (1956), two of Nicholas Ray’s finest films, are about two men made to feel “ten feet tall” in order to survive. For Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) in Place, it happens in a war; World War II, to be precise. For Ed Avery (James Mason) in Life, the medication he must take if he is to live longer than a year makes him feel ten feet tall and increasingly ready for battle. 

Screenwriter Dixon Steele saw a lot of combat in the war. When the idea is to stay alive among those trying to kill you, violence is as necessary as breathing. Dix comes home with his war-self still intact. Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy), a war buddy of Dix’s, is now a plainclothes detective and married to Sylvia (Jeff Donnell), a student of abnormal psychology who says Dix is “exciting but not normal.” She is glad her husband is “attractive and average.”

Brub’s boss, Capt. Lochner (Carl Benton Reid), ignores Dix’s war record and the terrible toll taken by experiences of that kind. So far as Lochner is concerned, Dixon Steele is a dangerous psychopath, the captain’s top choice for the murder of a young woman. The damage done not only to Dix, but to Brub as well, is of no concern to the captain. Brub nearly strangles his wife at Dix’s command, under his intense gaze. Dix had been Brub’s commanding officer in the war. Capt. Lochner’s attitude may stem from a lack of concern on his part, or maybe the large number of violence problems among post-war soldiers has rendered him callous. 

In either case, Dixon Steele is an explosion waiting to happen. Without intervention, he will probably kill someone. Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) is Dixon’s chance at happiness, a word Dix the screenwriter would approach with suspicion and caution. Laurel likes Dix’s face and from there we jump to romance, even love. She sees him nearly beat a man to death; only her intervention keeps Dix from killing the guy. 

When Laurel tries to leave Dix his temper flares and he throttles her, causing Laurel to fear him even more. I think Dix knew Laurel was going to leave. He even seems to be saying “I understand” when he recites a short passage from a film script he is working on. Then, upon his request, Laurel repeats most of the passage back to him. Dixon Steele is clearly his best self in his work.

In Bigger Than Life, cortisone turns a mild-mannered teacher and family man into a shocking critic of the world he inhabits. At a PTA function he tells parents the school is creating “moral midgets” with the intellects of “monkeys in a zoo.” Ed’s wife, Lou (Barbara Rush), tells him he has “always been ten feet tall” to her. While abusing the drug, he calls her “the little woman” and tells her how stupid she is. 

The Avery family attends church where the minister’s sermon convinces Ed that God was wrong to have stopped Abraham from killing his son. Ed intends to kill his own son, his wife, and then himself. He has been taking larger and too frequent doses of Cortisone until he is brought to earth by a friend’s strong arm, followed by a “long refreshing sleep” and much sedation. Ed must continue to take Cortisone, but now Lou will be supervising his medication. She has been totally subservient to Ed.

 The doctor’s assignment will be challenging. Dr. Norton’s last words to the Avery family: what Ed needs to “remember” is a Freudian prescription. Interesting when we recall Lou’s outraged reaction to Wally Gibbs (Walter Matthau), a gym teacher and family friend with a crush on her, suggesting that Ed see a psychiatrist. Later, Wally and Ed have a nicely choreographed, staircase bannister-busting fight that signals Ed will be alright. The gym teacher has knocked him out. He is not a Superman after all. 

In a Lonely Place does not offer us the dream package that Bigger Than Life appears to set before us. But I do not trust that package. I am left wondering if fear perhaps more than love has Ed clinging so desperately to his wife and son. 

Nicholas Ray had his finger on the pulse of the 1950s. 

About Arnold Stead

Arnold Stead is a poet, fiction writer, historian, playwright, and jazz and film critic. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and family.