Over the course of Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life, everything that glows with joyousness, complacency, and success at the beginning of the film is called into question: the leadership of a father, the safety net of a social class, the effectiveness of a public school, the moral guidance of the Bible, even the structural integrity of a suburban home. This is a film sandwiched between competing representations of comfortable family life in the 1950's that reflects upon the fragility of our lives in the face of ubiquitous darkness, fear, and encroaching mortality and challenges the notion of American freedom and individuality. Structured as a gradual transition from ostensible balance to exaggerated chaos, it showcases James Mason as the curiously suave, subtly arrogant schoolteacher and suburban father Ed Avery, who succumbs to an inexplicable artery affliction and is prescribed the still-experimental drug cortisone at the end of the film's first act. From there, he becomes a patriarch on steroids, his gestures of kindess hastier, his declarations of opinion more explicit, his assertions of power more extreme, and his emotional spectrum more definitive and outlandish. The script gradually weeds out the positive effects of the drug to focus with garish intensity on the negative outcomes of Ed's increasingly moody persona.
Bigger Than Life operates within the framework of a generic American suburb in the 1950's, complete with newfangled televisions, P.T.O meetings (those special pow-wows of community vision), and young boys with fantasies of football prowess, but Ray introduces ripples in the fabric of this illusory infrastructure, particularly in and around the Avery home. Several of these clues come before Ed's illness strikes: Ed's secret side job (maintained in need of extra cash) as a cabbie that causes him to return home later than usual three nights a week and arouses quiet suspicion in his housewife Lou (Barbara Rush); the cool slickness of the Avery house, where the presence of a deflated football on the mantle, posters of foreign cities and geographical maps on the walls, and scattered financial forms in the private sectors contribute to the sense of a domestic space seething with dissatisfaction and discomfort; and Ed's insistence upon turning out lights at night before Lou's chores are finished, as if desiring to live in a place that materializes the family's interior messiness. These hanging hints are especially conspicuous at the beginning of the film when the cheerfulness of the family offers such a striking contrast to the looming air of disappointment around them. Later, they begin to make sense, as Ray adds even more markers of fractured normalcy, like a backyard (always a site of joyful memories for the American family) troubled by an overgrown lawn, or the fact that the house becomes progressively segmented by closed doors, no longer an open environment.
That these hints are present throughout the film suggests that the use of cortisone for Ed is not merely something that nudges him towards patriarchal megalomania but that the drug was a way of exposing what was already lurking beneath his family man façade. "You've always been ten feet tall to me," says Lou to her husband in response to Ed's comment about the instant improvement cortisone has provided him. It's the kind of hokey, aw-shucks line expected of the Avery couple in the midst of marital satisfaction in this buttoned-up milieu, but because it comes after Ed has begun his bender it is graced with subtle, unsettling meaning. The values quietly honored by Ed pre-breakdown - his firm belief in maintaining a "sense of duty," his desire to make his son Richie (Christopher Olsen) a "man," his views on the softness of the educational system - are precisely those values emphatically proclaimed by Ed mid-psychosis; the only difference is that they have been exploded open, revealed for all their ugliness and Communist authoritarianism, for how intellectually righteous, unfair, and contradictory they really are. And they are especially damning in this small town society, seeing as they are an affront to the ideas of individualism erected by the American Dream. Yet the film also makes gestures to imply that Ed's symptoms are shared and similarly hidden by some members of his community. When he unleashes verbal fire at the P.T.O meeting on a horde of unsuspecting parents, calling the students at the school "moral midgets," amidst the jeers and gasps there are also notable sounds of enthusiastic agreement.
The film clues the viewer in to the flimsy fiction of small town life by paying close attention to surfaces and surface illusions as well. When Ed is first diagnosed with his affliction and he is being tested by doctors, there is a scene involving an X-ray scan of the inside of Ed's torso. At first, when the fluorescent lights of the hospital room are on, he unassumingly approaches the device, his head peaking up from behind it. Suddenly, the room turns dark, with only a neon red glow illuminating Ed's face, and his ribcage becomes the predominant element of the shot. It's a shocking shift, one that demonstrates how quickly and easily things can turn from an impression of comfort and safety to utter vulnerability, to a point where human flesh is made malleable and death seems so near. A thematic echo of this scene comes shortly thereafter when the cortisone has begun to inflate Ed's ego. Believing himself richer than he is, he takes his wife and son out to a ritzy clothing store and auditions various dresses for Lou, boasting that he can buy all of them. It's clear from the previous hints of financial issues - Ed's side job, the taxes laying dormant - that the family cannot afford these items, and the confusion and trepidation in Lou and Richie's faces is palpable. The mere act of transcending one's class boundaries, which is as easy as driving five minutes into town, can stir this family to the core.
Ray, exuding a sense of being both fluid in genre material and yet unwilling to play entirely by its rules, telegraphs the disintegration of the Avery family as if building to a macabre horror climax (indeed, The Shining would go on to expand upon the same familial scenario). The film's grotesquely hard and even key lighting, a sign of the Golden Age's "light-the-money" ethos, reveals the sweat perpetually beading down Mason's face, and one gets the feeling that Ray deliberately avoiding wiping him down before rolling the camera. Mason resembles a man whose external skin is dripping away, slowly unveiling a monster within. Practical tungsten units in the house all seem to be placed in the most impractical locations and at the most uneven angles, causing constant vampiric shadows on the walls that invite a layer of menace to casual domestic circumstances. In essence, this is an unlivable space, so clearly a movie set and so frighteningly a manifestation of Ed's consciousness; in two delightfully surreal touches, Ed unintentionally grabs hold of the doorbell when he has his second fainting episode and the ensuing ring sounds like his internal scream, and later, when he goes mad and wrestles his good friend Wally (Walter Matthau) through the railing of the stairs, the television blares frenetic carnival music.
For all its skepticism thrown at conventionality, the film, in the end, clings precariously to a notion of conservatism as the Averies embrace each other in a hospital bed. Though it may seem like a strange contradiction of Ray's previous destruction of middle-class ideals, his insistence upon the rejuvenation of the family unit as a vitally necessary weapon against chaos is not without its whopper of ambiguity. Not only is the scene of the embrace riddled by the same expressionistic kinks that are employed by Ray throughout the film - giving it the feel of a torture chamber more so than a room of rest and healing - it's also emphasized as a self-contained bubble outside the pressures of societal complacency, divorced from the context the family will soon re-enter. Medical treatment was exposed merely as a temporary prop for the reintegration of normalcy earlier in the film; once distanced from its grip, as Ed quickly became when his self-medication progressed, delusions and hypocrisies begin to seep back into domestic life. Apparently Ray later remarked that in retrospect he would have pinned the blame of Ed's escalating addiction more aggressively on medical malpractice were it not for backlash from the American Medical Association, but in fact this very ambivalence in the film towards the impetus for Ed's increased dosage leaves the tension between internal and external motivators of psychotic behavior thrillingly intact. As is, Bigger Than Life poses destabilizing questions about the very foundations of American family life that are routinely answered with the swift realization that problems have always been there. Society, caught between a longing for individuality and a need for organization, encourages them.