Nicholas Ray’s expressionistic color-coded widescreen is nothing short of revelatory in Bigger Than Life, a masterful melodrama whose aesthetic beauty works in service of a stinging social critique. Trapped in a life of ‘50s Norman Rockwell banality, full of polite bridge-playing dinner parties and talk of vacations that never materialize, elementary school teacher Ed Avery (James Mason) – driven to take a beneath-him second job as a cab driver to finance his suburban existence – is gripped by mysterious, debilitating chest pains that, Ray suggests, may be the byproduct of deeper-seated anxieties. With his dutiful wife Lou (Barbara Rush) and loyal son Richie (Christopher Olsen) by his side, Ed is rushed to the hospital and told that he has a fatal disease, but that a new drug – Cortisone – might be his miracle cure. It’s anything but, however, as Ed’s pill-popping soon becomes an all-consuming addiction, and one that drives him into destructive madness, unleashing vengeful thoughts and impulses about the weaknesses of contemporary youth, hatred for his wife, wish to flee his picket-fence prison, and – most terrifying of all – disgusted disappointment with his son.
The façade of blissful middle-class normalcy is stripped to its raw, dysfunctional, insane core by Ray, who transforms Burton Roueche’s New Yorker article (the script’s source material) from a mere based-on-real-life topical tale into a borderline-phantasmagoric vision of a nuclear family on the verge of detonation. With every vivid hue and low-angled close-up fraught with maximum tension and import, and every sumptuous pan a study in formal gracefulness, Ray’s Cinemascope direction is electric, amplifying the boiling-point pressures, resentments and manias plaguing Ed, who soon proves a pitiful vision of the terrible cost of attempting to conform to rigid social (and personal) standards. His film a modern-pharmaceutical Jekyll and Hide story, Ray exposes the nasty underbelly lurking beneath cheerful domesticity with a visual vividness that’s bracing. And as dynamic as Ray’s stewardship is Mason’s titanic performance, which conveys the dizzying psychosis wrought from attempting to live up to (and then rebel against) ingrained ideals, all while humanizing his unhinged protagonist with such relatable human desires – to be something better than average, to fulfill his spousal/paternal responsibilities, and yet to also escape crushing conventionality – that his saga, “happy” ending be damned, is ultimately elevated to the realm of tragedy.