Bigger Than Life (1956)

Directed by Nicholas Ray


Bigger Than Life feels like Reefer Madness.  It’s a story about a family man’s psychosis brought on by the drug cortisone.  Ed Avery (James Mason) is the picture-perfect family man in small town America.  He’s a school teacher with a loving wife and son, and we’re shown just how strong those bonds are as Ed struggles with something resembling vertigo.  At the hospital they tell him he has less than a year to live, but then they prescribe him cortisone, the miracle drug cortisone, which he has to take every 6 hours in pill form, and everything should be just fine.

This turn happens so quickly, that you know to anticipate the drug’s side effects.  At first Ed has an intense joie de vivre.  He’s passionate about life, his work, his family and about their happiness.  We meet Ed as a man concerned about money, having picked up a second job to pay the bills, but then, when healthy, that concern is out the window.  In the first sign of his imminent insanity, Ed forces his wife to try on a series of dresses, even if the cost of such a dress is much more than they can afford.

Ed’s passion for life morphs into some kind of obsession with the correct way to live life, and soon he is frightening the parents of his students, his good friend Wally (Walter Mathau), and his own family, particularly his son Richie (God I love all these 50’s names).

We’re led to believe that the drug has made Ed a raving lunatic.  He’s short with everyone, and he demonstrates a lack of regard for his family, but it’s kind of amusing that he’s not really a madman until we see him abstain from bowing his head at church.  This comes after he has told his wife, Lou (Barbara Rush), that he considers their marriage effectively dead, and he’s only sticking around to make sure their son grows up right.  We’ve also already seen how stern and abusive he is with his son.  The point is that Ed is a monster, ruling over his family like a murderous dictator who senses the growing rebellion around the corner.

But Lou knows that the drug is to blame.  She and Richie try to empty Ed’s stash, but he responds in expected anger.  The story runs on a little long as we get the idea behind Ed’s madness pretty early.  Then there are just more examples of how this drug has infected the Avery’s perfect post-war America household.  The nuclear family is coming undone, but again, it’s not until Ed doesn’t bow his head at church that the music really swells, telling us he’s truly lost his mind.

In a very melodramatic and clean finale, Ed nearly tries to murder his own son (a clear parallel of the biblical story of Isaac he recites to Lou) before Wally shows up and a brawl ensues.  Soon Ed is brought back to the hospital where we get an After School Special-like message about the dangers but also benefits of a drug like cortisone.  The doctor tells Lou that it’s not the drug that’s making Ed psychotic, it’s Ed’s misuse of the drug.  He then asks her to have faith, presumably in the drug.

Lou, with the studio lights glistening off her teary eyes, says the following:

“Yes, I have faith doctor, faith in my husband, and my son, in the family we can be together, and that is why I want to stay close to him, in his room, at his bed, by his side, so that when he opens his eyes and sees us, he’ll know that we have faith in him.”

The film is so sentimental.  It’s about this small circle of people, this one family, and yet it acts as though the fate of the world is at stake.  It’s a film that seems more concerned with getting this message out about the delicate use of life-saving but also life-endangering drugs.  The point seems to be that the doctors hadn’t yet come to fully understand the drug, but then we’re told that it’s Ed’s fault for his own misadministration of the drug, even though the doctors gave him a precise prescription.

These drugs are great, it’s saying, but you must not abuse them.

Now, before this film, my only exposure to James Mason was in 1982’s The Verdict.  In that film, he plays the slimy lawyer who opposes our hero, played by Paul Newman.  Mason’s somewhat peculiar accent would seem to make him an effective villain, even if he looks like he fits into that category of 1950s leading men alongside Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart.  In Bigger Than Life, Mason gets to play both sides.  He’s the perfect, wholesome family man as well as a violent psychopath.  According to a quick wiki search, Mason came to (some amount of) fame for playing anti-heroes in a series of melodramas throughout the 1940s.

So Bigger Than Life has the look and feel of a film noir, with harsh, menacing shadows, similar to what you see in The Night of the Hunter (1955), even as it’s set in picturesque 1950s suburbia.  With that juxtaposition of murky, dark cinematography in a location often shot with much more color and wider shots, this film tries to give the impression that this problem could take place anywhere.  It’s a similar feeling as a work like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, and many films have now tried to juxtapose horror with such a typically pleasant setting.


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