Watching Nicholas Ray’s domestic hell-o-drama Bigger Than Life (1956) puts a sour feeling in the pit of my stomach. It makes me queasy. It’s not just because of the white-knuckle tension that mounts as middle-class patriarch Ed Avery tyrannizes his wife and son. And it goes beyond the film’s super-scathing critique of family life and conformity in the 1950s. No, it’s a deep, lingering nausea stirred by the film’s corrosive dialogue, its too-vulnerable performances, and its blistering, visceral immediacy.
To elaborate on that “visceral immediacy”: whenever I think about Ray, I like to remember that “The Blind Run”—the treatment that evolved into his Rebel Without a Cause—began with the image of a man on fire hurtling toward the camera. It’s my skeleton key to Ray’s scattered filmography, a neat encapsulation of his pet themes and distinctive style. Ray’s movies were abrasive, direct, and unrelenting, injected with searing color and imagery, tagged with pulpy, elemental titles. Titles like Bigger Than Life.
Hell, that’s almost more of an onslaught than a title. But it’s a terrifyingly apt description of James Mason’s Ed Avery and his cortisone-induced delusions of grandeur. Cortisone, the film’s “miracle drug,” makes Ed swell up like an ego-crazed balloon. “He even looks bigger,” remarks an avuncular Walter Matthau. The cortisone is where my queasiness begins; it lends a strangely sci-fi edge to the film’s psychodrama. It’s a Jekyll/Hyde potion in the guise of a cutting-edge pharmaceutical—intended to turn sickness into health, it instead transforms a family man into a raving monster.
This transformation is always painfully legible in Mason’s performance. He starts the film off being so affable in his bowtie and white shirt, even if his British accent belies his supposed middle-American roots. As a father and schoolteacher, he champions athleticism, intelligence, and hard work, values that the post-cortisone Ed twists inside out. Between flickers of lucidity, he starts giving off a messianic glow and generating credos cobbled together from bits of Nietzsche and Horatio Alger. But the old Ed is always discernible just underneath the charismatic madness.
This feature-length metamorphosis is what really gets to me: how everything “good” quickly and unmistakably turns evil. Ed’s football practice with his son becomes a dehumanizing torture that’s a dead ringer for the swimming pool races in Mommie Dearest, another movie that made me nauseous. The family’s house, with its kitschy interiors right out of Better Homes and Gardens, becomes contaminated like poisoned candy.
It becomes a house of horrors, and I don’t use that phrase idly. As the Avery family descends into hell, Bigger Than Life borrows liberally from the techniques and iconography of the horror genre, enlarging Mason with low-angle shots and Nosferatu-like shadows. The climax is a conventional hero/monster showdown, punctuated by Ray’s lurid use of red and the cartoonish circus music booming from the TV. The film closes on an ostensibly happy ending, but it doesn’t feel happy at all.
Especially not after we hear Mason snarl a line like, “Our marriage is over! In my mind, I’ve divorced you!” It’s a line that severely disturbs his son, and me as well. That “in my mind” turns it from a conventionally melodramatic bombshell into a statement of intent: Ed is going to impose his psychotic beliefs on the world around him. This same desire leads to Ed’s greatest transgression, and the film’s most traumatizing moment, when he decides to act out the biblical story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. “But Ed,” protests his wife. “You didn’t read it all. God stopped Abraham.” Ed thunders back, “God was wrong.”
That line’s forceful blasphemy lingers long after the ending credits. It’s Ray’s most vicious indictment of bourgeois materialism, American exceptionalism, and every Cold War cult of self-improvement. “God was wrong” is like “You’re tearing me apart!” or “I’m a stranger here myself”—an ideologically dense line of dialogue indistinguishable from Ray’s own anti-conformist ethos. Those three little words sum up the film’s brash style, its sickening power, and its overall message: something is truly rotten in America.