Director Nicholas Ray’s bombastic follow-up to “Rebel Without a Cause” failed in 1956, but has become a cinephile favorite despite being available only at museums and on Fox Movie Channel and TCM. Now presented fully restored and in a ultra-first-rate Criterion edition, film geeks may be entranced by Ray’s outlandish use of widescreen and color, but it also stands as one of the most profoundly emotional and disturbing of classic-era Hollywood melodramas.
James Mason (who also produced) stars as Ed Avery, a kindly suburban schoolteacher struck by a rare, painful, and deadly illness. The only path to survival is a new “wonder drug,” in this case cortisone, a steroid. In time, Avery seems recovered, except that he is slowly becoming a control-obsessed tyrant and drug addict with delusions of grander prone to increasingly extreme reactionary diatribes. Of course, his loving and too dutiful wife (Barbara Rush) and devoted young son (Christopher Olson) suffer. His health-obsessed P.E. teacher best friend (Walter Matthau, terrific in one of his earliest film roles) experiences some discomfort as well, but mid-fifties people were far more naive than we are now about science-driven “miracle cures.” “Bigger than Life” could have been called “Fascist With a Chemical Cause.” (Ray was the prototypical “Hollywood liberal.”) At heart, however, it is an exploration of the potential for madness underlying all family life and quite a baroque one. “Bigger Than Life” treats the potential dissolution of a family somewhat like sci-fi horror and, in this case, it kind of is.