Though the arts have never lacked in memorable freaks—Frankenstein’s monster; Dracula; the slasher Holy Trinity of Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger—the most truly horrifying of monsters are the ones beneath a seemingly normal exterior. It’s why, in cinema, characters like Psycho’s Norman Bates; Mark Lewis, the voyeuristic camera-wielding madman of Peeping Tom; and Carol, the sexually repressed woman at the heart of Repulsion still wield a disturbing grip on our imaginations: Such characters are scary not because they’re unimaginable in the reality we live in, but because they feel like they could be lurking among—or maybe even within—us.
Ed Avery (James Mason), the protagonist of Bigger Than Life, has rarely been considered in the same breath as the aforementioned all-too-human monsters, most likely because Nicholas Ray’s 1956 film isn’t considered a horror movie, per se. It’s better classified as a domestic melodrama, but one with an alarmist medical hook that was fresh at the time: Avery’s increasingly volatile behavior in the film is chalked up to his abuse of cortisone, a drug that was only being introduced then. The film is inspired by a New Yorker article from 1955 by Berton Roueché detailing a case history of a schoolteacher who suffered ill effects as a result of his doctor prescribing him rising dosages of the new drug. In Ray’s adaptation, however, the main character’s cortisone addiction is, to some degree, a MacGuffin for a broader societal malady. Ray’s more interested in the dead end that is suburban middle-class life, a fate to which Ed, empowered by the cortisone, reacts with a fury that is initially liberating, then megalomaniacal, and finally near-deadly.
The cortisone Dr. Norton (Robert Simon) prescribes Ed is technically for polyarteritis nodosa, a rare arterial inflammation that could kill him within a year without treatment. But already, in the film’s opening stages, Ray and screenwriters Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum suggest that Ed’s ailment is as much metaphorical as physical. He’s overworked, for one thing: Because his teaching job doesn’t pay enough, he’s forced to make ends meet for his family by taking on a second job working the phones at a taxicab company—the latter being something he tries to hide from his wife, Lou (Barbara Rush), covering it under the guise of a lot of extra board meetings at school. Worse than the fatigue, though, is the sense of spiritual emptiness he feels in his current humdrum existence. “Let’s face it: We’re dull,” Ed ruefully says to Lou after a dinner party—just before he collapses from his disease and is forced to go to a hospital. It’s an ennui that threatens to kill him.
Ed’s life at the moment is certainly a far cry from—as is revealed in a brief exchange Ed has with his son, Richie (Christopher Olsen), just before he goes to the hospital—that one moment of glory he had in high school, when he subbed in for a quarterback in an important football game and scored a crucial winning touchdown. But with the cortisone comes rejuvenation…and terror.
In keeping with the film’s metaphorical tenor, Ed’s renewal of energies is more than physical. He not only feels better than he did before, he feels liberated from any sense of social constraints. Soon enough, he’s bringing his family along for the ride, taking Lou and Richie on an impromptu shopping trip to a high-end clothing store, caring not a whit about money even as Lou protests that they can’t really afford the dress he wants to buy her. Even in this sequence, though, foreboding clouds form, as the easy-to-please Lou is forced to try on multiple dresses in order to satisfy his specific taste.
That, however, is nothing compared to the delusions of grandeur Ed eventually develops in the service of what he considers sound teaching and parenting. Our first glimpse into this monstrous side is at a PTA night, when he calls childhood “a congenital disease” that needs to be cured through education, preaching a gospel of instilling the values of “hard work and self-discipline and a sense of duty” in kids, casting off what he sees as the cloak of overprotection. How this translates in practice is eventually revealed in the way Ed begins to treat his own son: threatening to take away lunch from him if he fails to catch a football, browbeating him in trying to get him to solve a simple math problem.
Worse than the sense of superiority his newfound “wisdom” gives him, even towards his own wife—who he at one point berates for failing to be his “intellectual equal”—Ed’s megalomania eventually acquires murderous, Biblical proportions. When he catches Richie stealing his cortisone from him, having concluded that his son is now officially beyond help, Ed uses the Bible story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of son Isaac to justify his intention of killing not only Richie, but also himself and his wife. To his wife’s rejoinder that God stopped Abraham from going through with the act, Ed authoritatively bellows, “God was wrong.”
Ray and director of photography Joe MacDonald echo the nightmarish qualities of Ed’s dramatic arc with images that veer away from the initial blasts of bright, optimistic color into a more menacing world of dim lighting and domineering shadows. Perhaps Bigger Than Life’s most memorably disturbing image in the scene in which Ed forces Richie to solve that math problem: As he peers over his son’s shoulder, the light from a nearby lamp casts a large shadow above him that seems to pervade the entire room. It’s the kind of image that would fit right into a German Expressionism, like Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, one that visually depicts the domestic monster Ed has become.
But in that aforementioned PTA scene, though his remarks engender mostly repelled responses, one of the parents does loudly praise Ed’s tough-minded worldview. “Some of us have been waiting to hear this kind of talk, Mr. Avery,” he says. “That man ought to be the principal of this school,” he later says to an administrator. It sums up the true horror at the heart of this character.
As grotesque as Ed eventually becomes, his actions have a certain understandable logic to them, especially in the context of 1950s America, with the threat of nuclear peril breeding an atmosphere rife with the possibility of sudden death. How else to prepare a new generation for a more dangerous future? And considering that this is Ed’s reaction to breaking free from the dullness of suburban existence that he was more soberly regretting not too long ago, Ray’s film may well get one to reflect on just how far one is willing to go to shake off such existential doldrums. The unimaginable power of limitless freedom—it’s at the heart of any true terror, whether on movie screens or out on the streets.
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist and The Village Voice. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine and former editor-in-chief of In Review Online. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art, and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.