Bigger Than Life (1956)


(director/writer: Nicholas Ray; screenwriters: from an article in “The New Yorker” by Berton Roueché/story by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum/Cyril Hume/Richard Maibaum/Gavin Lambert (uncredited)/Clifford Odets (uncredited)/based on an article in the New Yorker by Berton Roueche; cinematographer: Joe MacDonald; editor: Louis Loeffler; music: David Raksin; cast: James Mason (Ed Avery), Barbara Rush (Lou Avery), Christopher Olsen (Richie Avery), Walter Matthau (Wally Gibbs), Robert Simon (Dr. Norton), Roland Winters, (Dr. Ruric), Kipp Hamilton (Pat Wade), Rusty Lane (Bob LaPorte); Runtime: 95; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: James Mason; Twentieth Century-Fox Film; 1956)

“Recognized by many as one of the better films ever made.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Nicholas Ray (“Rebel Without a Cause”/”In a Lonely Place”/”They Live By Night”) adapts this allegorical domestic melodrama from the New Yorker chilling article by Berton Roueché and a story by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum. It was dissed by most critics on release, causing the downbeat and probing realistic Bigger Than Life to be a box-office failure. But, later, it was acclaimed by Truffaut and Godard, and has since been recognized by many as one of the better films ever made critiquing the so-called tranquil materialistic landscape of the middle-class in the 1950s.

James Mason stars as the sympathetic Ed Avery, a mild-mannered, dull, suburban family-man, and dedicated but underpaid elementary schoolteacher who moonlights as a taxi-cab dispatcher. After collapsing at a dinner party, it’s discovered that he’s suffering from a rare heart disease that has the potentiality to kill him inside of a year if he doesn’t start taking the new, untested ‘miracle’ drug cortisone. At first, the drug proves beneficial, with Avery making great strides to a complete recovery. Before long, when released from hospital supervision, the drug’s side-effects transform his personality into an aggressive type and his behavior becomes erratic as the patient secretly takes a heavier dosage than his physician prescribed. His sweet wife Lou (Barbara Rush) struggles to adjust to his mood swings and grandiose schemes, as does his loving young son Richie (Christopher Olsen). Lou’s best friend, the nice-guy bachelor gym teacher, Wally Gibbs (Walter Matthau), valiantly tries to help too, but Ed suspects him of trying to make time with his wife. Eventually, the now bullying and obnoxious Ed gets the idea to sacrifice his son just like Abraham did in the Bible. He’s stopped by the concerned Lou, who states that God stopped Abraham. But Ed replies in a rage that “God was wrong!”

With his growing megalomania Ed’s ‘house of cards’ comes falling down that was built around the ’50s nuclear family, repression and conformity, as it comes under scrutiny as symbols of suffocation and disease. In the end his life is put together again when his kindly physician, Dr. Norton (Robert Simon), sedates him and he gets another chance to take the Cortisone as prescribed and thereby find a way to make his family and his teaching job count as a way of fulfilling his dreams as an ordinary guy who could make a difference.