Jill Blake writes:
Along with the sweeping biblical epics and splashy musicals synonymous with the 1950s, filmmakers such as Douglas Sirk, Delmer Daves and Nicholas Ray left their mark on mid-century films by exploring the problems that lie just beneath the perfect surface. The illusion of happiness and security was stripped bare, giving audiences a glimpse into the real struggles faced by the average family. (…)
Ed is also keeping another secret from his wife. For several months, he’s been suffering from mysterious pain and blackouts. With their increased frequency and intensity, Ed is no longer able to hide his condition. After a particularly terrifying episode in front of both Lou and their son, Ed is taken to the hospital for lengthy rounds of testing and evaluation. He is diagnosed with a rare condition and told that he only has months to live, but is given the option of taking a new drug, cortisone, which might keep his illness under control. Warned of the potential side effects of the drug, and that he will have to take it indefinitely, Ed sees an immediate improvement, feeling like he’s been given a second chance. Of course, this high doesn’t last long; Ed abuses the drug, causing him to behave erratically, becoming increasingly paranoid and violent. In one way, the medication frees Ed from his concerns, making him feel powerful and in control, but on the other hand, he digs his family deeper in debt and breaks apart their previously tight-knit familial bond.
I first heard about Bigger Than Life in 2011, via TrailersFromHell.com, and wrote in part:
I find the “dark underbelly of American suburbia” genre mostly a bore, and (for a concept beloved of “progressive” critics) frankly bourgeois and borderline colonialist: are they really saying that living in a spacious home in a safe neighborhood and enjoying a steady paycheck, which you spend at a comically over-stocked grocery store, is really such a terrible fate — as bad as scratching out an existence in Ethiopia?
It’s the kind of thesis only spoiled people could conceive of. Of course, most of us are such spoiled people, so at various times in our lives, particularly adolescence (Bigger Than Life was Ray’s follow up to Rebel Without a Cause) the theme takes hold of you. (…)
Having endured excruciating pain for months, prednisone offered me instant relief. Yes, it makes you very hyper (and hungry) — feeling “well-er than well”; “bigger than life” is an ingenious title for a film about it. But the physical side effects are embarrassing and depressing — I went from a size 0 to a 14 — and ultimately harmful, so you want nothing more than to get off it. James Mason looks nothing like an individual taking large and long-term doses of cortisone.
I finally saw it this year on TCM and while it remains too offbeat to really be called anyone’s “masterpiece” — the filmmakers’ clearly knew that; the sorts of star sales pitches seen in the trailer below show they were aware of what an odd movie they now had to sell — Bigger Than Life is often harrowing and powerful.
Certainly worth seeing, even if you only view it as a curio.