Bigger Than Life, released in 1956, is Nicholas Ray's masterpiece starring James Mason as a milquetoast elementary school teacher named Ed Avery, struggling economically at home and at work, and newly diagnosed with a rare, dooming affliction. The cure is a hormone--cortisone--that the menacing doctors advise him to take indefinitely. Once he's out of harm's way, the physicians also warn him to look out for any emotional changes, because cortisone often results in extreme manic-depression for its takers. But he's not listening. Immediately we get the feeling that only bad things are going to happen (Ray first has us glimpse Mason from behind, his camera looming ominously behind the character as he massages his stinging neck).
The journey Mason embarks on is a veritable nightmare, pure and simple (I'm now wondering if 50s-movie-fan Todd Haynes got a little inspiration here for his 1995 film Safe, with Julianne Moore, because it features a similarly lifeless lead character who's propelled into turmoil due to a difficult disease). It's not long after he begins the cortisone treatment that Mason becomes a thoroughly offbeat person. Feeling "ten feet tall" after the treatment, he soon wants to feel even taller, and begins abusing the drug. First, he's physically manic: he's oily and sweaty as he throws his old college football around--inside a 50s-immaculate house--with his adoring son (Christopher Olson). Early in the movie, before the affliction really takes hold, Mason's character genially describes himself as "dull" to his wife, played by Barbara Rush (he says she's dull, too, and we can feel this exquisite yet housebound woman wilt at the description--she doesn't know how "exciting" her life is about to get). Reacting to this malaise, Mason forces his happy-as-is wife and son's accompaniment on an ill-advised spending spree that's not in line with his income as a teacher (also, Mason rashly ditches his at-one-time thoughtful but demeaning = second job as a taxi dispatcher, which he has kept secret from his wife and child).
The film's second act deepens the conflict. Now, not only is Mason overactive in body, he's overactive in mind as well. He holds court at a school PTA meeting, telling adoring parents that "Childhood is a congenital disease--and the purpose of education is to cure it. We're breeding a race of moral midgets!" (Interestingly, this splits the parents into factions: one thinks this man is a monster, one thinks he should be the school's principal.) Mason becomes a true terror at home, goading his once-loving son past achievement and into hatred, threatening to deny him dinner if he doesn't catch the next football pass or solve the math problem put to him (both scenes are terrifying, especially today; modern parents will find the sequences absolutely abhorrent). Mason, overdosing on the cortisone (he thinks something supreme is happening to him, and here the film becomes a drug-addiction parable), even comes to the conclusion that wife and son are trying to undermine his authority, and thus--in a sickening dinner-table sequence--he summarily disowns them.
SPOILER ALERT: The utterly mortifying third act has the son--who now knows the pink-bottled drugs are transforming his dad into a ghoul--rummaging through Mason's belongings in order to find and destroy the cortisone (the unbelievably well-directed scene results in the film's one true JUMP moment). The scene occurs just as Mason is turning his newly-cynical worldview to religion as well (we can see Mason shrinking into despair during dinner-time grace and church outings). After Olsen's "betrayal" (in which the boy says, amazingly, "I'd rather see you dead than see you like you are now"), Mason picks up the Holy Bible and refers to Abraham killing his son after he sins. Rush--who delivers a strong, superb performance--tries to dissuade Mason who, scissors in hand, is bound to kill Olsen. She tries to remind him that God was merciful with Abraham, but Mason emotes, in the film's most famous moment, as he slams the Bible shut, "GOD WAS WRONG" (the Bible is then noticably relegated to the floor). This movie's final twenty minutes will have you on biting your nails, as Rush calls on Mason's co-worker and athletic best friend Walter Matthau (terrific, as always), to come to their rescue. SPOILER ENDED.
Director Nicholas Ray (left)--with other films like On Dangerous Ground, The Lusty Men, In A Lonely Place, King of Kings, and Rebel Without A Cause--has consistently pleaded the case for out-of-bounds, truth-telling characters. But with Bigger Than Life, he's staked higher, more rocky ground. After reading Gavin Lambert's tell-all memoir Mainly About Lindsay Anderson, I now know that Bigger Than Life is Ray's confession about his own deadly addiction. His film makes us aware of the causes of Ed Avery's faults, but it nevertheless compels us to despise him first and pity him second. Written by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum (the latter most famous for being the scribe of many James Bond pictures), with contributions from Clifford Odets, Ray, and Mason himself, the movie is stultifyingly photographed in scary, shocking contemporary lights and shadows by Joe McDonald. This is especially so in scenes where Rush and Mason clash over the run of the house (these moments often take place on the home's staircase which, by the end of the film, is brutally demolished). Though I don't care for David Raskin's overemotive score, or for the movie's too-comforting final seconds, Bigger Than Life is an overlooked, influential stunner that deserves much more adoration.'