“One pill, and he thought he could handle anything. One pill, and he thought he was bigger than life!”
James Mason (who also produced) plays a man torn between familial duties and a desire for less pedestrian pursuits. As the film opens, we watch him leaving his day-job as a teacher to work surreptitiously as an operator for a taxi company. His wife has no idea that he’s moonlighting to supplement their comfortable middle-class lifestyle, instead suspecting him of an affair. But when he doubles over in acute pain, blacks out, and must be rushed to the hospital, she learns (with ironic relief) the truth about his stressful situation. Ed’s prognosis isn’t good, but with the help of a steady dose of cortisone — the new “wonder drug” of the day — he’s able to manage his pain and quickly return back to his regular life.
Unfortunately, this seeming “happy ending” merely signals the onset of an increasingly nightmarish existence for the Averys, as Ed discovers that cortisone provides him with a new kind of strength and virility which he had been sorely lacking before. He can’t seem to help himself from taking more than the prescribed dosage of his medication, and soon becomes a frightening figure of irrational authority in his household, demanding more and more control over his wife and son’s every move. The story quickly goes beyond the audience’s comfort zone, showing us the “hidden” impulses and thoughts which emerge when Ed is no longer constrained by petty concerns such as earning an income and maintaining a modicum of social propriety.
Ultimately, then, Bigger Than Life shows us a prototypical 1950s family man who secretly longs to transcend his cloistered existence (posters and maps of far-away countries — places he can’t afford to visit — line the walls of his house), but who is torn by a sense of guilty responsibility to his family. His wife (played with firm resolve by Barbara Rush) is similarly stuck in a vision of 1950s propriety: she’s afraid to send Ed to a psychiatrist because of what this would imply about his sanity, and unable to stand up to her husband even in the face of extreme danger to herself and her son. While the film ends on an unrealistically upbeat, pro-family note (perhaps demanded by audiences of the day), fortunately this doesn’t erase the impact of the gripping psychological horror that has come before.
P.S. While Peary doesn’t review Bigger Than Life in GFTFF, he does list it in his “Additional Must See Movies” section as a Personal Recommendation and a film with historical importance.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)