Ed Avery must have come from somewhere other than the anonymous suburb where he now lives with his wife and young son and teaches grade school. He has that mid-Atlantic accent, untraceable yet distinctive. He once played football, but now wears bowties. He seems patient with his students and friendly with his colleagues, but might there be a subtle tone of condescension in his voice? There’s a curious tension between his emblematic middle-class Americaness and these hints at Otherness.
Ed moonlights as a taxi dispatcher, something he hasn’t yet told his family about. He’s overworked, and maybe that’s why the shooting pains he’s been suffering get worse until Ed finally collapses, is taken to hospital, and following a series of uncomfortable tests is told he has a rare inflammation of the arteries which kills those afflicted within a year. His only recourse is to take cortisone, a new ostensible wonderdrug still to be satisfactorily tested. The drug indeed makes Ed feel wonderful, charged, optimistic, ready to re-apply himself to his vocation and familial role. But this new life rapidly descends into nightmare. Ed becomes moody, flamboyantly arrogant and short-tempered, cruel to his wife and unreasonably demanding with his boy. The Avery home becomes a house under siege by its increasingly deranged patriarch. But here’s the thing about Bigger Than Life (1956): I never really believe that Ed’s behaviour is the fault of the cortisone. Helpless as he is to the threat of pain and death—that force that ultimately proves to be bigger than life—Ed’s peculiar rampage feels like the release of some long repressed attitude toward the rest of the world. Ed the eager-to-assimilate outsider, perhaps more than his indigenous peers, has bought fully into the American Dream, and it may have simply been a matter of time before it made him crazy.
Bigger Than Life, now available from the Criterion Collection, is among the finest achievements of director Nicholas Ray’s career. Coming quickly after Rebel Without a Cause (55), it represents the zenith of Ray’s explorations in the realms of both Technicolor and Cinemascope, resulting in expressionistic flourishes of red and orange against a generally muted palate and framing that gradually forces the walls of the Avery home to seemingly close in on its inhabitants. Based on a New Yorker article by Berton Roueché, to which the script, written by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum, with uncredited contributions by Clifford Odets, is surprisingly faithful, Bigger Than Life also represents the height of Ray’s profound interest in social problems, especially those that refused to be facilely dismissed by way of class or race. The critique of postwar consumerism threaded through this vivid and continuously unnerving film is fairly overt without being chastising: when Ed ’s workmate mentions she’s having car trouble, Ed immediately suggests she just get a new one; when Ed arrives home from work the first thing his son Richie does is ask if Ed brought him anything; when Ed leaves hospital, despite increasing worry over medical bills, the first thing he does is take his wife Lou out to a fancy dress shop where he bullies her into elaborate gowns they can neither afford nor have any practical use for. Spending money seems the only way for Ed to express his feelings of anguish and exhilaration. That is, until he re-directs his energies toward an oppressively disciplinarian, reactionary vision of pedagogy, which then builds to quasi-religious delusions of grandeur. During the film’s climax Lou tries to remind Ed of God’s fundamental forgiveness. “God was wrong,” Ed tells her.
Part of what makes Bigger Than Life so persuasive are its finely tuned performances. The inspired casting of James Mason, also the film’s producer, provides Ed with layers of neurosis that a more obviously “average joe” sort of actor would never yield. During parent-teacher night Ed holds court, declaring childhood “a congenital disease, and the purpose of education is to cure it.” Such audacious outbursts are delivered with a subtly bizarre mixture of conviction and childish provocation, with Mason looking at once oddly oblivious and surveying the room to gauge reactions, perhaps gleeful over the more outraged faces. At other times Mason’s pain and confusion seems chillingly acute, such as in the scene that finds him staring into a fractured mirror after having driven the previously obedient Lou to the point of exasperation. Barbara Rush provides Lou with a heart-rending, if frustrating, inner-conflict between whether to coddle or berate her husband. She’s often in a state of terror, desperately calculating under attempted placidity as to how to best pacify Ed. There’s also sturdy support from Walter Matthau as the bachelor phys-ed teacher whose relative youth and physical strength seem to threaten Ed. (In one of the disc’s best supplements, author Jonathan Lethem makes a case for Matthau’s character’s hidden homosexuality. Of course Lethem also goes on a very amusing tangent about the pompadour created by James Mason’s shadow.)
The performances help imbue Bigger Than Life with the balance of identification and strangeness, of urgency and ambiguity that Ray seemed to be nurturing on every level. The film is unrelenting in its disquiet, which may account for its being so unloved in its time. It wears the vestiges of a Douglas Sirk-style melodrama, yet it at times feels like pitch-black comedy, and with its noirish shadows and claustrophobic interiors, it comes to resemble a horror movie, complete with a finale in which the monster hasn’t died but rather seems to be sleeping, waiting. The desperation with which Ed clutches his family in those last moments is genuinely touching. I truly believe his need and his fear and even his love. It’s just that his clutching could so easily erupt into a stranglehold.