Today, we continue to embrace the melodrama by taking a look at Nicholas Ray’s 1956 Hell-In-The-Suburbs masterpiece, Bigger Than Life. Unfortunately for some of you, this review is going to contain minor spoilers because there’s no way you can talk about Bigger Than Life without talking about that ending.
Bigger Than Life is a film about deception.
English teacher Ed Avery (James Mason, who not only gives a brilliant lead performance but produced the film as well) pretends to be happy with his safe and dull life but it only takes a few minutes of looking at his strained smile and listening to him wearily make perfunctory conversation to realize that Ed is a deeply disappointed man. He decorates his house with travel posters for locations that he’s never visited and spends too much time thinking about when he played football in high school, the one time in life when he truly stood out from the crowd.
Ed doesn’t want his wife Louise (Barbara Rush) to know that they’re in financial trouble so he gets a job working as a taxi dispatcher without telling her. While Louise fears that he’s actually having an affair, Ed spends his time coming up with excuses for why he can never come straight home from school.
Ed doesn’t want either Lou or his son Richie (Christopher Olsen) to know that he’s been feeling pain and dizziness. It’s only after he faints at home that he finally agrees to go to the hospital.
The doctors who inform Ed that he has a life threatening condition don’t want Ed to know how dangerous the medicine that they’ve prescribed for him can truly be. They tell him that cortisone can save his life but they don’t tell him about the side effects. It’s up to his friend Wally (Walter Matthau) to research the drug and, by the time he does, it’s already too late.
Ed doesn’t want anyone to know that he’s becoming a drug addict. However, as he takes more and more of the pills, his personality starts to change. The once meek Ed is now demanding perfect service at stores and restaurants. At a PTA meeting, Ed has no problem announcing that most of his students are stupid. (“You should make that young man principal!” one parent shouts, apparently relieved to hear that a teacher thinks of little of his children as he does.) At home, Ed pushes his son to become a football great and announces that he no longer loves his wife.
Richie doesn’t want his father to know that he now hates him. Lou doesn’t want her husband to know how much she is growing to fear him.
Ed doesn’t want Richie to know that, after reading the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, Ed has decided that he has to murder his son. When Lou points out that God kept Abraham from killing Isaac, Ed replies, “God was wrong.”
And finally, the film itself deceives you into thinking that it has a happy ending with Lou and Richie hugging a now recovered Ed. Everyone laughs and the happy music swells but there’s prominent shadow cast on the wall close to the family, a reminder that the darkness that Ed has unleashed on his family will not be so easily contained or forgotten.
Bigger Than Life is famous for being one of those films that flopped when it was originally released, just to eventually be rediscovered and acclaimed decades later when it was released as part of the Criterion Collection. It’s easy to understand why the film flopped because the power of Bigger Than Life is almost entirely to be found in the film’s subtext. On the surface, Bigger Than Life is a typical social problem film. In this case, that problem would appear to be drug abuse.
However, as you watch the film, it becomes obvious that, for director Nicholas Ray, the real problem is the conformist and repressed society that the Avery family finds themselves living in. When Ed’s personality changes, all he is really doing is achieving an extreme version of the ideal suburban existence. The suburban ideal is that the man should be the king of his castle. Ed becomes a king but he’s one of those kings who would behead his subjects on a whim. In telling this tale of American exceptionalism gone mad, Nicholas Ray uses the techniques of European expressionism, using skewed camera angles and creating a world that is full of shadows. Even before Ed takes his first pill, his world is a dark and threatening one.
By the end of the film, Ed may be off the drugs and he may be recovering but, as Nicholas Ray makes clear, the real problem remains.