In 1955, the year that frames the drama in Revolutionary Road, famed New Yorker medical writer Berton Roueché published a true account of a Queens schoolteacher driven to the brink by a negative reaction to the “miracle drug” cortisone. The following year, the article became the basis for a Hollywood movie that remains one of the best, most radical, and least-known American films of the 1950s. A critical and commercial flop upon release, Bigger Than Life has never been issued on any commercial video format in the U.S. and has stayed in circulation chiefly by virtue of occasional airing on the Fox Movie Channel—a poor substitute indeed for the new 35mm CinemaScope print that runs at Film Forum through January 8.
Directed by Nicholas Ray from a screenplay credited to Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum (though Clifford Odets and Gavin Lambert both made significant uncredited contributions), Bigger Than Life transposes the setting of Roueché’s article from New York to the suburbs of Anytown, USA, which is but the first indication that Ray is interested in more than a mere medical mystery. Afflicted with sudden, crippling pains, otherwise jubilant, well-liked teacher, husband, and father Ed Avery (a brilliant James Mason, who also produced) is diagnosed with a rare and potentially fatal inflammation of the arteries. The only treatment: cortisone. But even before he falls physically ill, there is evidence that Avery may be suffering from a far more lethal affliction of the spirit. He lies to his prim and proper wife (Barbara Rush) to conceal his extra-income job as a taxi dispatcher—whatever would the neighbors think?—and dares to voice the realization that beats silently at the heart of many a smiling suburbanite: “We’re dull!”
Well, the dullness soon subsides as Avery starts popping prescription hormones like breath mints and—in what amounts to a canny retelling of the Jekyll and Hyde story—his id runs roughshod over suburban America’s neatly manicured lawn. (The recurring use of mirrors emphasizes the suggestion that we have passed through the looking glass.) Riding a euphoric high, Avery feels unstoppable—”ten feet tall,” as Roueché’s article was titled—showering his family with expensive presents, berating the assembly at a PTA meeting for “breeding a race of moron midgets,” and announcing plans to write a “life work” manuscript that will teach people how to make themselves over in his shining image.
Shooting in crisp wide-screen with cinematographer Joseph MacDonald, Ray begins Bigger Than Life as a series of immaculate hedgerows, picket fences, and modern kitchen appliances, only to gradually lower the camera angles and lengthen the shadows as the film transforms into a dystopian, surrealist expanse—an obvious precursor to David Lynch’s maggot-infested Lumberton, North Carolina; Father Knows Best reconfigured as Greek tragedy. An outsider by temperament and himself no stranger to addiction, Ray aligns his own sympathies with Avery even as he moves from delusional to homicidal—or is this apparent madman simply telling an uncomfortable brand of truth? “God was wrong!” Avery bellows as the movie arrives at its still-terrifying climax—an attempted correction of Abraham’s aborted fatherly sacrifice that reverberates long after the Production Code–imposed “happy” ending, which itself is only as happy as you deem a retreat from the edge of insanity to the quiet madness of conformity.