Bigger Than Life—DVD Review

BIGGER THAN LIFE; one disc; Criterion Collection; $39.95

In 2010, the destructive drug of Nicholas Ray’s 1956 medical drama Bigger Than Life appears harmless. After all, who nowadays abuses cortisone? But as James Mason’s Ed Avery, a quintessential, bow-tie-wearing mild-mannered schoolteacher starts popping more and more of the then-experimental drug in order to combat the crippling pain of a rare disease, he exhibits signs of megalomania verging on what we know call “roid rage.”

The unintended but useful connection to the deleterious side effects of steroids is echoed in Ed’s intense nostalgia for his one moment of glory as a second-string high school football player—an athletic achievement that he hopes to replicate in his hapless young son, Richie (Christopher Olsen), in a backyard coaching session that makes Woody Hayes look like Mr. Rogers.

At first, Ed’s mood takes a turn for the better as the cortisone kicks in; he’s more voluble and expansive. Some of his damped-down desires to be a kind of Superman (via Nietszche, not DC Comics) are freed. Soon, however, he teeters into mania, dragging Richie and his worried but weirdly docile wife, Lou (Barbara Rush), off on a shopping expedition that outstrips his modest salary.

But Ed isn’t really changing; he is actually becoming more and more his inner self. A telling subplot at the beginning covers the family’s tenuous hold on the middle class, as the underpaid teacher secretly moonlights as a cab driver to make ends meet.

In the fullness of his unleashed persona, Ed delivers an excoriating and amusing speech at parents’ night about the woes of modern schooling: “Childhood is a congenital disease. And the purpose of education is to cure it. We’re breeding a race of moral midgets.” Most of the parents are shocked, although a few salute his candor. Eventually, Ed exhibit the traits of a virtual psychotic, abusing both wife and child, until finally he conceives of himself as Abraham called upon by God to sacrifice his offspring—at which point medical science and the censors intervene for a happy ending the narrative has been pointing away from for 90 minutes.

Mason, who produced the film, gives a scary performance as the bad dad, although it just doesn’t make quite make sense to conceive of the plummy-voiced English actor as an all-middle-American teacher. Rush’s wife is understanding to a fault—always willing to wait a few more days to call the family doctor even when Ed starts eyeing the kitchen knives. As the family friend, Walter Matthau’s comic tics are merely distracting. The film’s impact comes from Ray and cinematographer Joseph MacDonald’s use of color CinemaScope to create an atmosphere of domestic horror on an almost epic scale. As Ed grows more frenzied, the camera sits lower and lower, casting deep shadows on the walls of the Averys’ house. We are reduced to the cringing perspective of Richie as he sees Ed looming over him like a patriarchal tyrant. In the climax, Lou’s red dress is matched with the red gilt on the top edge of the bible that Ed sees as a source of murderous salvation. In these scenes, Ray brutally strips away the facade of the suburban ’50s family unit. This Criterion print is, as always, beautifully restored; the disc comes with a commentary track by author Geoff Andrew (The Films of Nicholas Ray), a somewhat tendentious 1977 interview between Ray and film critic Cliff Jahr, a insightful tribute by novelist Jonathan Lethem, a featurette with Ray’s widow Susan and a booklet with a critical essay by B. Kite.

Michael S. Gant

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