Suburban Nightmare: Nicholas Ray’s “Bigger Than Life” (1956)

I came across Bigger Than Life (1956) rather unexpectedly. In the last month or so, the Criterion Collection has become something of great interest. While I was watching a video showing director Nicolas Winding Refn talk about his favorite movies in the Criterion pantheon, he chose this one, calling it an “absolute masterpiece.”
After reading about the film, I became intrigued and picked it up over the holidays. Here is the original trailer for the film:
Sold ostensibly as a medical melodrama based on the adverse effects of cortisone therapy, Bigger Than Life is a complex look at American family life and class in the 1950s.
James Mason plays Ed Avery, a schoolteacher suffering attacks of serious pain. Unknown to his wife Lou (Barbara Rush), Ed works a second job as a taxi dispatcher. After a small party at their home, Lou asks Ed what he thinks of a guest’s wife. He thinks she is dull.
“Let’s face it, we’re dull.”
Soon after, Ed blacks out. He goes to the hospital and after a battery of tests, the doctors find that Ed suffers from a rare disease: an inflammation of the arteries. They place him on the “miracle drug” cortisone, which makes him feel alive again — “ten feet tall.” However, he soon begins feeling the effects: depression, delusions of grandeur, paranoia. Rather than rack up even more medical bills, Ed starts overdosing on the cortisone.
The suburban setting, so often associated with success and the American Dream, becomes a place of entrapment.
Initially, the drug releases Ed from the social constraints of life. At a PTA meeting, Ed diatribes on the state of American education. We’re breeding a “race of moral midgets,” he argues. He spirals into a hyper-conservative stance; instilling the value of hard work ought to be the true goal of teaching.
He quits his job at the cab company and takes leave from the school. Those places seem beneath him now. Even his family and home seem beneath him. He sees himself as a revolutionary reformer of education. In order to work on this new life project, he tells his wife he has to leave their home and its “atmosphere of petty domesticity.”
Ed constantly seems as odds with his lot in life. Much of his background can only be inferred. Brought to life by Mason, Ed seems like someone that holds himself in high-esteem. He’s somewhat arrogant, which is only enhanced by the cortisone.
What keeps him at home is their son, Richie (Christopher Olsen). Over the course of a weekend, Ed’s behavior grows darker, more demanding, and accusatory. He tortures his son by punishing him with grueling football practice and math problems — all in the guise of educating the boy. He reprimands his wife and son when they disobey his orders. He threatens the milk man, believing that he’s jealous of Ed’s sophisticated mental work (you seek to distract me with your “jingle-jangle in, jingle-jangle out”).
The family unit collapses. The social order seems to collapse. Ed is above it all.
After the family comes home from Sunday church, Richie looks for the cortisone in order to destroy it. His father finds him, declaring that Lou “won” and his efforts to bring the boy up have been too late. “Our son is a thief.”
Ed reads the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac; the father whom God commanded to kill his son. To Ed, this seems like the only logical step — kill Richie to spare him a life as the criminal and murderer he will become (Ed’s ideology is taken to its extreme and ultimate conclusion). “But God stopped Abraham,” says Lou. Ed: “God was wrong.”
Ed now sees himself above God, he’s truly bigger than life in his own mind. The murder-suicide of the nuclear family is his solution. Of course, he doesn’t actually carry it out — Hollywood wouldn’t have that. But the fact that he comes so close to such a dark ending in 1956 is particularly interesting.
Nicholas Ray creates a suburban nightmare with this film. Characters are trapped in the social and economic order. The Averys only scrape by financially, which the medical bills further complicate. Ed grows to effectively despise everyone and everything.
On the walls of the Avery home are maps and posters of various European locales — France, London, Rome. They are reminders of another world, another sort of life, and perhaps a dream.
The film ends with the family embracing, yet nothing has really changed. Ed still must take the cortisone. They still have to pay for the medicine and their other expenses. They, and we as an audience, are right back where we started.
Bigger Than Life (1956)
Directed by Nicholas Ray
Screenplay by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum
Starring James Mason, Barbara Rush, Christopher Olsen, Walter Matthau
95 minutes
Not Rated
Budget: $1 million
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
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