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The United States is hooked on a regular regimen of pills, tablets, and capsules. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, during the years 2015–18 some 48.6 percent of people had used at least one prescription drug in the past thirty days. And these figures do not even factor in the use of illicit drugs or those that are kinda sorta illicit, such as marijuana. 

Prescription drugs cure ailments and ameliorate pain; they also cause side effects and can alter basic functioning and behavior. The normalization of chemical substances may seem like a phenomenon peculiar to our postmodern moment, but a movie made nearly seventy years ago sounded the alarm before many of us were even born.

Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life, which 20th Century Fox released in the summer of 1956, was perhaps the most impressive example of a form that dominated Hollywood at midcentury: the melodrama. Such classic films as Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life, Vincente Minnelli’s Some Came Running, and Delmer Daves’s Susan Slade told dramatic, often electrifying stories of domestic life using the most nakedly expressive of means, including emphatic acting, bold color, and propulsive music scoring. Nowhere did cinema seem more obviously operatic than in the melodrama, a medium in which Ray himself was expert: The filmmaker’s Rebel Without a Cause and Party Girl are masterpieces. 

Bigger Than Life, however, remains Ray’s most potent work. The film was drawn from a New Yorker magazine article by Berton Roueche about the psychosis-inducing side effects of the drug cortisone. James Mason, who also produced the picture, stars as Ed Avery, a schoolteacher contending with a pair of unrelated maladies: the economic privations of his low-paying day job and unpredictable spells of shooting pain resulting from some undiagnosed disease. Nonetheless, Mason’s performance gives the impression of a man graced with a healthy dose of stoicism. Ed seems to regard his spells as one of God’s little trials, and he uncomplainingly supplements his teaching job with work as a dispatcher at a taxicab company. Apart from these crosses to bear, Ed’s home life looks to be cozy and contented: He has a pretty wife, Lou (Barbara Rush), a well-behaved son, Richie (Christopher Olsen), and a well-appointed home somewhere in the suburbs. The grass is green; there is a milk man.

All of this is imperiled when Ed learns that his spells are not mere inconveniences but symptoms of something far more serious. Ray photographs Ed being poked, prodded, tested, sampled, and instructed to swallow barium. The doctors directing this flurry of activity appear, in the context of the film, like sorcerers straining to perceive meaning in a boiling cauldron. They are not conduits of pure science in the manner of Anthony Fauci; they are engaging in guesswork, supposition. Finally, a diagnosis: Ed has a heart malady—one that will result in imminent death unless the suggested treatment is adopted, a “miracle drug” called cortisone. 

The regimen helps in the expected ways—an on-screen chart shows Ed’s pain decreasing as his cortisone use continues—but it instantly proves disruptive to its subject’s personality, which once was benign, companionable, and modest. Ed tells his bewildered family that he feels ten feet tall and hurls himself into a manic episode: He insists that his wife upgrade her wardrobe by going on an underfunded spending spree at a fancy department store—a scene of male-directed fashion-obsessiveness that surely influenced Alfred Hitchcock in Vertigo. Ed also says so long to his taxicab job, speaks poisonously to colleagues and strangers alike, and claims he alone can combat the inadequacies in modern schooling. “Childhood is a congenital disease, and the point of education is to cure it,” he says with typical grandiosity.

Ray is too subtle a filmmaker to blame cortisone alone. Mason comes by his supercilious manner naturally. Ed’s frenzied state could certainly be seen as an understandable overreaction to the prospect of dying; in the aftermath of that shock, perhaps he is simply living life with a renewed sense of urgency. At the same time, Ed’s character flaws have been accentuated by using and abusing the drug.

This is especially obvious in the film’s terrifying final act. By this point, Ed has rendered himself alien even to kith and kin. Announcing that he has “outgrown” his wife, Ed says he remains in the marriage only for the intellectual betterment of Richie, whom he harasses about everything from football practices to math lessons. Barbara Rush—one of the loveliest actresses of the ’50s—imbues Lou with a rare sort of Christian grace. Lou tells her bewildered little boy that his father is in an impossible position: Either he takes cortisone, which renders him mad, or he ceases using it, which means certain death. She says they must remain charitable and patient with Ed—and they try, desperately, to do just that.

Ray shoots these scenes as if making a demented film noir; one famous shot emphasizes the shadows cast by Ed as he ominously looms above his son while overseeing his math homework. Ed’s behavior—his tangents, his detachment from logic, his inexplicable cruelties—will be familiar to anyone who has been around someone mentally unwell. Far less recognizable to most audiences, though entirely plausible in the context of the film, is Ed’s final attack on Richie, which involves a false accusation of thievery that, his father reckons, must be punished by replaying, in real life, the story of Abraham and Isaac.

Contemporary critics write of Bigger Than Life as some sort of satire of suburbia—its alleged conformity and all the rest—but perceptive viewers will recognize that the film’s vision of the Averys’ home life only becomes nightmarish once it is overtaken by a moody, eventually murderous madman. In fact, cortisone does not cause Ed to more fully recognize suburbia’s limitations but makes him lash out and nearly destroy all dear to him; this is the only interpretation that gives teeth to the film’s critique of medicine.

The best critics at the time of the film’s release understood what Ray was saying. “Ray wanted to show the public that it is wrong to believe in medical miracles and ‘miracle drugs,’ since any one of them, just like the atom, can both save and destroy,” wrote Francois Truffaut, an ardent admirer of the picture, adding that the director “filmed the doctors in groups of three, and framed them like gangsters in crime films.” 

Ed Avery thinks he has infinite lessons to teach the world, but Bigger Than Life itself offers the most lasting lesson: To blindly accept a society that views drugs as cure-alls is to dance with the devil.

Peter Tonguette writes from Columbus, Ohio.

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