James Mason gleaned the idea for Bigger Than Life from a contemporary article featured in The New Yorker by a medical writer named Berton Roueché. He detailed the side effects of the drug cortisone featured in real-life horror stories.
The title is certainly far from a misnomer and James Mason gives a performance to fill up the expanses of the screen bursting off it with furious abandon in all sorts of unwonted ways.
If my memory serves me correctly, there’s a shot at the entrance of the school where he’s being dropped off by his wife (Barbara Rush) who demurs that he’s always been 10 feet tall to her. The shot following has to be about the lowest angle conceivable with Mason positively towering over us until he walks forward and things become normalized.
It’s almost playful and still a disconcerting manipulation of the typical visual field. It’s indicative of much of the film. On the top layer, it’s the portrait of 1950s suburbia seen over and over again. There’s even an inadvertent connection to the quintessential nuclear family thanks to a pint-sized cameo from Jerry Mathers. But there’s also something pernicious gnawing away at our protagonist.
The film readily brings back the palette of Rebel Without a Cause we know and love, using the up-and-coming widescreen Cinemascope format, typifying the luscious productions of its era.
Ed Avery (James Mason) is a school teacher, one of those shining beacons of pedagogy and some things certainly have not changed. For such a noble profession, he can’t claim to be affluent. In fact, he’s moonlighting a couple nights a week in a cabbie service to make a bit more money. His wife Lou has a sneaking suspicion he might be cheating but how could he? He’s an utter angel.
His relationship with his best friend is borne in an introductory shot. Wally is played by none other than Walter Matthau. If that’s not enough, we meet him in a school corridor with a catcher’s mask strapped over his head and baseball gear filling up his hands. It’s a fairly slight part but as Matthau had a lengthy pedigree ahead of him, it’s a satisfying morsel to start.
Meanwhile, Barbara Rush gets few laurels as an actress, but she works handily as the loving spouse who Ed returns home to every evening. It feels strangely ironic because I almost unconsciously traced the line between Magnificent Obsession. It lies in their deep abiding roots in medical melodrama. The first features Rush as a grown daughter and now she has progressed to a maternal figure, but the trauma remains constant.
Because, as it turns out, Avery is a fairly sick man with the clock ticking away on his life. Thank goodness there’s a miracle drug, “Cortisone,” which while still widely unknown has been used with some success on such cases as his. At first, the unassuming pills seem to be doing the trick.
Riding a generous streak, he takes his wife out to a dress shop to buy her the finest things and then gets his son a shiny new bicycle. James Mason is a riot in the store leaving his family speechless. He’s walking on cloud nine. Positively the picture of good health and yet every bit of heightened euphoria is a hint of something far more ruinous working underneath the surface.
Because the changes are no longer comical or imperceptible for that matter. It comes to tossing the football in the living room chiding his son’s lack of ability and resolve. There are unwarranted mood swings to follow and the broken shards of a mirror blatantly suggest what is to come.
Back to school night is highlighted by an uncharacteristic rant about the woes of childhood and the claptrap of modern education, which has parents in a huff. It’s the most recent sign of coming attractions. Megalomania begins to overtake him with ensuing ravings about new missions and leaving matrimonial shackles behind with increasingly radicalized rhetoric injected with delusions of grandeur.
Now his only resolve is to rear his son in the pursuit of self-efficacy as he begins to enact a dictatorial behavior over all his domain, berating a wayward milkman, turning an uninterested eye on food, sleep, feelings, or anything else that might get in his way. To get psychological, he blatantly disregards Maslow’s hierarchy of needs leaping straight to the pinnacle.
Meanwhile, his wife is scared stiff. Worried for her husband’s well-being as much as she is for her boy. And yet, if it gets around about mental trouble in the family, there will be no reprieve and so she tries to weather the storm. It becomes a suburban horror tiptoeing along an impossibly sickening tightrope. You couldn’t contrive something more calamitous if you tried.
Would you cope living with an utter tyrant if it meant your spouse and father could go on living? If pain was the only issue, then the answer seems ridiculously simple, but sometimes those conundrums are the most devastating to crack. In fact, it makes me sick in the stomach watching the mental breakdown exacerbate.
Overwhelmed by his psychosis, Ed begins spouting off scripture, one moment contemptuously, the next clearly intent on following Abraham’s lead by sacrificing his son without a second thought, twisting the words into another perverse commitment. He states his sentiments quite bluntly in one sequence as his wife hopelessly pleads in favor of compassion, “God was wrong.”
Turgid melodramas grow tiresome by the minute, and yet that fails to be the case when a film has far more to offer us whether it be artistry, irony, or social commentary. Equally compelling is a stirring dramatic situation at the core of Bigger Than Life.
Like the best films of Douglas Sirk, Nicholas Ray is able to pull off the histrionics of such a derided mode of filmmaking and allow it to remain enduringly interesting — even resonant today — to the extent possible. Far from wearing it thin, the passage of time makes it seem more horrifying by the hour.
However, as comes with the territory of such ludicrous dramaturgy, it easily becomes a hit or miss proposition. It will go too far for some and for others just far enough to make it compelling. I think I fall in the latter category because this is not just a sitcom episode. It surpasses those rhythms for something more substantial.
In its final moments, Bigger Than Life morphs into a frenzied Hitchcock thriller in a weird, insane way as we watch a banister snap like matchwood in the midst of chaos and a deranged man is caught in a frantic confrontation with his best friend.
And as inauspiciously as it began, it comes to an end like the lingering remnants of a bad dream, resolved and forgotten just as quickly. The status quo falls back into place in the culminating shot and wife and son reaffirm faith in their family unit, cradled in the loving arms of the man of the house.
James Mason is generally remembered as a suave villain, but he proves his merits equally so as a family man gone off the rails. His performance seamlessly hits all these beats that are simultaneously heightened, while still ringing with some note of inner truth. He is a tragic hero of the post-war, suburban age.
All of a sudden, evil comes not from within man himself but from outside stimuli. Though one could easily infer that such behavior indicates the perversity lying dormant, just waiting to be unleashed. It simply takes certain chemical triggers to send him hurtling back toward his darkest inclinations. Regardless, it’s a terrifying portrait of instability in technicolor. Often real-world nightmares are the worst of all.