Bigger Than Life (Nicholas Ray, 1956): USA

Reviewed by Kathleen Amboy.  Viewed at the TCM Film Fest, Hollywood, CA.

  A school teacher’s medical dependency on Cortisone, turns from melodrama into horror, making every issue Bigger Than Life.

Ed Avery (James Mason) is an under-paid school teacher who moonlights as a dispatcher for the Yellow Cab Company, when he begins suffering from severe bouts of pain and inflammation.  Lou Avery (Barbara Rush) is his loving wife, who supports Ed through his various medical tests, diagnosis, and treatment.

He is given an experimental drug for a life threatening illness, and is instructed to take one tablet of Cortisone every six hours.  The drug works wonders on his health, but since drastic mood swings are a common side-effect, either surging with euphoria or plummeting into depression, Ed becomes confused with his dosage and takes too much. 

He immediately quits his job as a dispatcher, suggesting to his boss that one of the cabbies ought to drop off his paycheck, and then takes his wife out on a wild shopping spree, all the while popping more pills.

Ed’s friend and fellow teacher Wally Gibbs (Walter Matthau) becomes suspicious of his behavior and alerts Lou, who ignores the warning signs, all the while Ed and son Richie (Christopher Olsen) play an extremely rough game of football inside the living room.

On Open House night at school, Ed is feeling unusually bold in his classroom amongst the parents, and in a matter-of-fact tone he belts out his diatribe on how “children by nature are lazy, greedy, and untruthful,” and while catching the attention of one, but shocking the rest, Ed continues with “childhood is a congenital disease, and education is the cure,” just as the principal enters the room.

By now, Ed is secretly hiding his meds, and going ballistic on the milkman for clinking his bottles.  He severely reprimands his son for not catching a football toss, and while considering a proper punishment, he concludes to his wife that a murder/suicide of the entire family is the only viable solution, with which Lou finally concedes there’s a problem.

Bigger Than Life proved too advanced for 1956, and was not well received by critics or the box office.  Replicating a Sirk melodrama in the first half, mid-way through, the film turns hideously dark in tone, and although slightly campy at the end with sharp scissors, a fist fight, and a broken banister, it has stood the test of time, since prescription drug abuse is common today.

True to form, Nicholas Ray’s protagonists always experience some traumatic emotional turmoil, and Mason is superb as the fractured Ed Avery.  The gifted James Mason is most often remembered for his role as Norman Maine in the wonderful remake of A Star Is Born (George Cukor, 1954), but his Captain Nemo of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Richard Fleischer, 1954) is an unforgettable performance.  He had a natural acting style, that seemed comfortable with every diverse character he portrayed.

Wally Gibbs is one of Walter Matthau’s earlier screen roles and hints at the great career that followed, in films such as Don Siegel’s Charley Varrick (1973).

The lovely Barbara Rush was present at this screening to answer varied questions about her film career, for which she was thankful.  Having known Robert Osborne for many years, she referred to him as “the encyclopedia.”

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