Heightened sensations are the order of the day in Nicholas Ray’s 1956 film, from the mania turned megalomania that gives an exaggerated sense of self to the pill-popping Avery to the jacked-up level of intensity with which the director pitches the final stages of his melodrama. But such are the (ill)logical extremes of a frustrated patriarchal instinct: impotence seeks cover in imagined power, a false raising of consciousness that finds its visual analogue in unnatural bursts of color. Ray’s film operates by paradoxical reaction: the de-manned head-of-household seeks to transform himself into a superman, at least in his own mind.
Marked out by his British accent (he’s played by James Mason), his place in a female-dominated profession (he’s a schoolteacher) and a slightly effeminate bow-tie, Avery’s a half-successful patriarch at best. He makes ends meet for his wife and young son, but only by taking a second job on the sly. (So worried is he of his wife’s reaction to his secret gig that he’d rather have her think he’s having an affair than come clean.) He’s bored silly by the dinner party patter that represents his sole social diversion and longs to travel, but the posters of foreign cities that line the walls of his house seem more like spice to an imagined fantasy life than signifiers of any real possibility.
And then, like a mass of abstract anxieties suddenly made palpable, Avery falls deathly ill with a rare disease that can only be treated by a new wonder drug. Picking up his purple bottle from the pharmacy, he starts popping Cortisone, first according to the prescribed dosage, than whenever he feels like it. But as Samuel Fuller would later use a lunatic asylum not to critique America’s treatment of the mentally ill, but as a springboard for the exploration of a full range of societal sicknesses, so Ray is little interested in investigating the ravages of drug abuse per se, instead using the resultant effects to expose certain stresses at the center of the family structure.
If Avery’s principal concern is his perceived shortcomings as provider, then his initial burst of mania serves as a corrective effort. Ignoring his real financial situation, he whisks his wife off to an expensive department store, makes her try on a dizzying array of evening wear (the otherworldly swathes of oranges and reds with which the dresses dot the screen evoke a vivid dream world that contrasts sharply with the Averys’ drab home life) and then decides to buy his son a new bike. But this enforced merriment rings hollow: his desperately asserted display of buying power is undercut both by his wife’s worry about their ability to pay and his son’s concern at his father’s odd behavior.
From there things spin quickly out of control. Parent-teacher night at the school becomes the occasion for a diatribe against the wickedness of schoolchildren, the parents in a predictable dither as Avery shares his belief that their kids will grow up into a “race of moral midgets.” Avery declares his marriage de facto over, summarily informing his wife that she’s not his intellectual equal. And he turns his attention entirely over to his son, subjecting him to an unrelenting program of football and mathematics, obsessed with the idea of turning him into a man. The same rigor applies to both pursuits: a missed catch and a missed word problem alike causes the young boy to forfeit a meal.
In one shot, the camera tracks back behind the boy as he runs across the lawn to haul in a football pass from his father. As Avery whips a Favre-like zinger to the kid, it bounces off his hands and tumbles into the grass. Two further drops occasion a lecture on manhood. Later, the father, looming heavily in a low-angle shot - a visual exaggeration expressive of his outsize feelings of self - towers over his son as the latter puzzles out common denominators, the older man’s shadow stretched out ape-like on the wall behind. Drained of color, the dimly lit den presents only muted whites, olives and browns. The clock ticks past 9. Dinner is still on hold.
Basically, the pills’ structural function is to exaggerate existing conditions and bring to light hidden fears, specifically those inimical to the smooth functioning of a grey flannel society. Avery’s obsession with turning his son into a certain conception of a man – the kind who views success in competition as essential – is clearly indicative of his own insecurities. His desire for his son to perfect his rational mind through math exercises is both a perversion of his own pedagogical instinct and an expression of his fear of the alternative: the illogical chaos that hovers under the patterned surface of organized humanity. And despite his efforts (or because of them) that chaos soon takes over completely. Avery’s mania assumes divine size proportions. Apotheosizing himself, he declares “God was wrong” and, clutching one last item in the iconography of patriarchal authority, the family Bible, sets about sacrificing his son.
Yeah, it’s a powerful moment. And it usually gets laughs from the audience. But it’s not hard to see why viewers prefer to inject a buffer of irony between themselves and the film. Easier to dismiss the act as a bit of quaint melodrama than take in the full force of Ray’s blunt operation. As it unfolds, the scene’s a mass of signifiers that don’t quite cohere into any consistent reading. There’s the beleaguered authority figure wielding a traditional symbol of that authority (the Bible) trying to sacrifice the same son he spent the last half hour of screen time shaping into a man, while his wife cowers in the corner in a bright orange dress and Walter Matthau (playing a physique-obsessed gym teacher) arrives on the scene to restore order.
What is it, in the end, that Avery’s attempted act of filicide is trying to represent? A triumph over his fears about his role as provider? An abdication of his need to assert authority? An acknowledgment of doubt over the legitimacy of that authority? Any way you look at it, it’s a harrowing scene, culminating in a final shot (James Mason cringing against the door in an agony of self-doubt, brow pressed firmly into forearm) that suggests something of Norman Bates’ tormented cowering four years before the fact. After that, Ray can only backtrack, giving us some ambiguous hope that the situation can be salvaged and Avery returned comfortably to his previous social role. But as everything we’ve seen during the previous hour and a half suggests, the situation cannot be salvaged and Avery’s resumption of that role would solve nothing. Some situations are just too thoroughly rotten.