Kevin Joshua Burnham

The school bell rings, and all the joys of children can be heard and seen as they run into the world of freedom from the walls that kept them captive for many years. However, as the camera shows us the inside, there is still one child remaining captive toward its prison walls, and a middle-aged teacher sits alone. The middle-aged teacher is seen tired, suffering a headache, and is seen wanting to escape its brick compounds. The young kid finally gives a partial answer to a quiz, and he is relieved to be set free into the world of care-free activities before Easter. However, the middle-aged teacher cannot be the same, due to himself moonlighting from one job to the next, suffering a physical in his stomach area with a headache that appears unbearable.

The teacher is played by British actor, James Mason, playing Ed Avery. James Mason not only acted but produced the 1956 American film “Bigger Than Life.” This would be released one year after his widely well-known hit “Rebel Without A Cause.”

Ed Avery is husband to a beautiful, devoted wife, Lou (Barbara Rush), and father to their young son, Richie. From the beginning, everything we see is what anyone wants from the American dream. A lovely home, great friends, a stable career, everything needed to live a stable life. However, Ed isn’t exactly truthful to his wife about his job as a taxi driver, which raises questions about what he is really doing at school, and if he is having an affair.

But the pains continue and grow even more than usual. After a get-together of card games that Ed planned earlier, He is nowhere to be seen but cooling his head in the icebox. Meanwhile, a young lady that was invited is standing beside him to check on him. Lou soon comes to retrieve her husband, to discover this and question his absence.

After the guests leave and people say their goodbyes, the once brightly lit house is coming to retire. As Avery is turning the lights off of every room, Lou enters to reorganize and clean. It is interesting to see as every room the two enter, the pictures on the wall start with domestic areas of the country and progress to other exotic countries as the two converse going up to say goodnight. “I think the Jonese are dull,” Lou says, exhausted from entertaining their friends. “So are we. Let’s face it, we’re dull,” replies Ed as he looks at her remembering some past years in life surrounded by the pictures of places they have yet to adventure on.

It comes to an abrupt ending as he passes from the intense pain, and one of their dear friends, fellow school P.E. coach Wally (Walter Matthau), is called to drive him to the hospital. As leaving the house, Ed falls again, this time holding onto the doorbell as it buzzes to release the torture of pain he has been holding onto for an enduring amount of time. Wally holds Ed’s son back, and everyone watches in bewilderment, unsure of how to truly react.

The doctor informs him of the condition, and it isn’t good. Surgery must be performed, or else he has a few months to live. After the surgery, he is prescribed a new drug called Cortisone. This drug is said by the doctors to save his life. This would be called into question as a drug that is so new and still unknown but is for sure saving his life. The doctors, after the operation, have convinced Ed, this newly discovered drug is necessary to survive.

The questionable and uneasiness of the whole ordeal is resolved, both surgical and family matters. Ed explains to his wife, about moonlighting another job, to afford the luxuries of their life, the father and son bond even more than before. Instead of the usual boring westerns with his son’s eyes glued to the television, the two brought new life to the prune of the father’s football, a symbol of the father’s once-prized trophy sitting above the fireplace play catch. Even in the once stillness and perfect cleanliness of their home. The operation appears to be successful, and the new drug appears to have cured the disease.

But things will change, turn, and the miracle drug will present some side effects that will change their lives and the people around them. Accusations will arise, and full manic mood swings will appear something straight out of a horror film. Even the way the doctors glean from an angle or have an unnatural smile (at least it appears unnatural) gives me the creeps. I will guarantee you never look at milk the same way again.

Final Thoughts

The film is most unusual for its time because not only do we see the true nature of the picture-perfect Eisenhower-era of the neighborhood, but it’s subject of drug addiction, trust, and mental health. Before this, there were always movies about drug addiction, but it was done in a propaganda manner that was quite silly. Also, if films had to touch on mental health, it would be such a taboo, something that was misunderstood. This film, however, is quite the opposite.

I believe if Director Nicholas Ray had more control, there would have been more added for context, but this film is nevertheless brilliant. Unfortunately, audiences and critics of the time disliked the film, and it wasn’t successful at all. I am happy the film has found its way through audiences more so today and into physical media, such as the Criterion blu-ray edition I have in my personal library. The transfer is spectacular and has made scenes shown so much better than when I last saw it airing on television many years ago.

Usually, I would suggest at least watching it once, but this is a film that I would suggest you add to your library for multiple viewings. Or wait until the next Criterion sale hits.  For people concerned about the content of the film, there is no sex or nudity, but a brief discussion about a possible affair: no foul language, just name-calling. The violence may be tame at the end visually to most, but the atmosphere is heavy on dark themes. Those themes include suicide, death, drugs addiction, manic mental behavior, depression, and abuse. As I said, the film is tame, but as the film progresses, it gets darker in tone.