Bigger Than Life (1956)

Bigger Than Lifebiggerthanlife
Directed by Nicholas Ray
Written by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum from an article by Burton Roueche
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
First viewing/Netflix rental
#323 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

Ed Avery: God was wrong!

Nicholas Ray makes this more than an expose on the dangers of cortisone.

Ed Avery (James Mason) is an elementary school teacher.  His meager salary forces him to moonlight part-time as a taxi cab dispatcher.  He doesn’t tell his wife Lou (Barbara Rush) out of shame.  The couple will have a communication problem throughout the movie.  They have a son named Richie.

Ed has been having bouts of severe pain.  One day, he collapses.  He is hospitalized and the doctors finally determine that he has a rare arterial disease that will probably kill him.  Cortisone is being used as an experimental treatment and seems to be effective.  Ed goes back to work and feels ten feet tall.  Despite his doctor’s warnings, he is careless about his dosage and begins taking too much. Then the abuse becomes intentional.


Ed starts spouting reactionary notions about education and children.  He feels superior to everyone, especially his long suffering wife, and becomes truly scary to live with.  Finally, a friend (Walter Matthau) investigates and finds that the cortisone may be the problem.  By now, Ed has become impossible to talk to and then he becomes scarier still …

Bigger Than Life (1956)

Everyone in this movie has secrets. Lou has been trained to be subservient and to conceal what she really thinks.  Both of the partners feel they must hide any problem from the school.  I thought the movie was more a subversive look at the underbelly of ’50s suburbia than about the drug abuse.

Ray was a master of both widescreen and color and the film looks beautiful.  It is as full of ominous shadows as any film noir.  I had a hard time buying Mason as a middle-class American school teacher but despite the miscasting he is superb.  Recommended.


4 thoughts on “Bigger Than Life (1956)

  1. This ranks pretty high for me for films from the era. Mason might be a little miscast as you say, but he makes it work. The scene on the staircase at the end is still amazingly chilling. That comes in part from the great dialogue, but also from Mason’s delivery.

    • This is one I think I need to watch again sometime soonish. There’s a lot of good stuff packed in there around the edges of the story.

  2. There is a saying that you will hear the truth from dunks and children. Maybe I should add crazy people to that. When Ed goes maniac so much of his frustration pops out and those frustrations are very much linked to life in suburbia.
    Tough, but smart movie.

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