Walter Matthau, Barbara Rush, and James Matthau in 1956's "Bigger Than Life."

Bigger Than Life
June 20, 2022

DIRECTED BY

Nicholas Ray

 

STARRING

James Mason
Barbara Rush
Walter Matthau

Christopher Olsen 

RATED

NR

RELEASED IN

1956

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 35 Mins.

B

efore the camera rests its gaze on James Mason’s face the first time in Nicholas Ray’s pungent Bigger Than Life (1956), it’s looking at the back of his head, right at the moment a pain so overwhelming flares there that his hand can’t help but instinctively, uselessly massage it. After dinner that night, that pain hits him again as he’s reaching for something in the refrigerator. Moments afterward, he collapses.

These pains — from which his character, an elementary-school teacher named Ed, admits to have been suffering silently for the last six months (he’s chalked them up to side effects of exhaustion) — are soon determined by doctors as signs of polyarteritis nodosa, a rare condition that inflames the arteries and from which its sufferer is likely to die within the first year of their original spike of debilitating pain. 

 

The one thing that could potentially prolong Ed’s life, doctors say, is cortisone, the now-common steroid-hormone treatment still relatively new in 1956. Though they warn that using it for his condition should be looked at as more unreliably experimental than a sure-bet solution, Ed agrees to take it without hesitation. He doesn’t come right out and say it, but, as a teacher so atrociously paid that he recently took a side job as a cab driver, he’s worried about how he’ll continue financially supporting his wife, Lou (Barbara Rush), and their young son, Richie (Christopher Olsen), if he’s too unwell to work.

 

After his first few doses, Ed comes to consider cortisone a miracle drug. All his pain is gone, for one thing. But he also has more energy now. His spirits have shot to skyscraper heights, too, relished in one afternoon with an expensive shopping trip where Ed gifts Lou and Richie the sorts of display-window gimmes they’ve always wanted but have never been able to — and technically still can’t — afford. Soon, though, Ed’s dependence on the drug becomes all-consuming — more than about just keeping pain at bay. The more he takes, the more his behavior convergently fractures and frays, foreshadowed before things take a turn when Lou, in a moment of frustration, shatters a mirror and Ed eyes himself in it, a breathing mosaic. His temper doesn’t so much as flare but stay red-hot. Lou and Richie bear the brunt of its heat. Delusion evolves from sporadic to dominant. 

 

Take Bigger Than Life at face value and it’s admittedly a little silly — a sensationalized melodrama about the effects of a still-relatively-novel treatment tyrannized by an intense Mason performance that gets practically rabid. It’s clear, though, that Ray, working from a script by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum, isn’t necessarily that interested in what the movie literally is about. What fascinates him, as well as the viewer, is the movie’s more oblique frustrations, which pile up enough to make Bigger Than Life come across like movie-length disillusionment with suburban American life in general. 

 

From its foundational idea — that the idealized suburbs are overrun with malaise and people tormented by the confining domestic roles they’re expected to embody and be happy with — springs additional anger over the ultimate value of business over life in the pharmaceutical industry, the false promises of meritocracy, and, because the movie doesn’t like limiting itself, religion as a justification to mistreat others. (Ed, late in the film, develops a sort of god complex that proves nearly deadly.)

 

Although Ed’s cortisone-assisted behavior grows progressively scary, Bigger Than Life builds into a strikingly empathetic addiction drama. It never abandons its view of addiction not as a signifier of someone’s moral impurity — as many movies involving drug use and anything adjacent to it continue to understatedly announce — but as a disease, all while never minimizing its effects on the people impacted by resulting lashings-out. 

 

By Bigger Than Life’s end, which offers no resounding resolution, you feel practically pummeled by its driving dilemma. Should the addiction continue to be endured for the sake of ostensible physical healing, spending money you barely have on prescriptions in the meantime, or do you get off the drug and risk jeopardizing your life in a different way? Neither answer could ever bring about an effective solution. The conclusion one comes to, watching Bigger Than Life, is that this situation, and the social mores only digging into its agonies, is unendurable. A