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Schoolteacher and family man Ed Avery, who's been suffering bouts of severe pain and even blackouts, is hospitalized with what's diagnosed as a rare inflammation of the arteries. Told by doctors that he probably has only months to live, Ed agrees to an experimental treatment: doses of the hormone cortisone. Ed makes a remarkable recovery, and returns home to his wife, Lou, and their son, Richie. He must keep taking cortisone tablets regularly to prevent a recurrence of his illness. But the "miracle" cure turns into its own nightmare as Ed starts to abuse the tablets, causing him to experience increasingly wild mood swings. Written by
Eugene Kim <email@example.com>
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37 minutes into the movie, Ed is at the bathroom sink and has just replaced the pill bottle in the medicine cabinet. As he closes the cabinet door, the director and the camera are reflected in the mirror. See more »
I don't know much about cortisone, but from seeing Nicholas Ray's film Bigger Than Life I can have to guess that unless there have been some major medical breakthroughs in the 50 years since this came out, it should have a very huge warning label on the bottle. But it isn't really about cortisone, per-say, even as it does make its case convincingly for the times that such new drugs to possibly help save lives become a double-edged sword. The drug could be anything, it's merely a catalyst for character and story to go into completely un-bound turns. The Avery family could, in fact, be a Beaver-Cleaver household of the fifties, where 'father knows best' is often a given and the house is as beautiful and elegant- in its suburban middle-class way- as is the outward appearances of the husband, wife and son. But the same catalyst, for the intents and purposes of the changes in all the characters, is utterly fascinating. I couldn't help but actually care about these people, as their sort of sheltered existence became un-covered like some kind of manhole into some metaphoric sewer that many of us sit in. There is something under the surface, and it's one wrong thing that can make it go awry.
Ed Avary (James Mason) is such a man, who is a school-teacher and cab-driver operator (on the side, keeping from his wife). He starts getting 'episodes', and has to go to the hospital. It's discovered that he has to live with a heart condition for the rest of his life, and only a new experimental drug, cortisone, can help with regular doses. It doesn't take too long though for things to start going south with Ed, and at first it just seems like he's a little more ornery, a little more on edge, but seemingly trying to still be the old Ed. But then there's his new school-teaching system, and the inducing and steadily increasing paranoia lifting the fog for him what his marriage really means. "I'm only staying now for the boy!" he says in a rage at the dinner table. It becomes clear that he's in the psychosis state, in doing too much of the cortisone, and it lifts not only the comfort of this life, but the expectations and ideals of this seemingly calm, perfunctory existence.
There were other pictures around this time being made in Hollywood, within but at the same time under the conventional radars (Sirk comes to mind, though still unseen by me). Bigger Than Life is a great example of this, and Ray and Mason get right to the bones of it in the main chunk of the picture. Early on though its interesting to see how the tranquility is set up, and how the first barbs of bad things to come is sort of shielded over, to seem like it's nothing, like it'll be all OK. But the implications that both director and star raise through what they deliver through the material is staggering. On Ray's side, he accentuates things exceptionally by the deception of appearances; it may be a studio-film, with the usual medium-shots and high-glossy lighting and camera moves, yet there's some room for expression, like the shadow that looms over Avary's son during an ultra-tense study session. His command over the style is shown here as one of his finest and, at times, even understated. Though finally in the climax he goes full-throttle, in a scene of (possible) horror that's given the full subjective treatment.
Mason, meanwhile, is really at the top of his game, and it's extremely terrifying to see not just how far he can go into losing all touch with his own reality, but the reality of the usual in distortion. Even through the cortisone, Mason has this character come off at first as a braggart, but sort of believable at a PTA meeting (Matthau's gym teacher friend finds something fishy though), and then it doesn't take too long for him to plunge head first into his dementia. A small scene like the one where he gets an extra prescription from his doctor, however, also shows his subtleties. Barbara Rush is also very good as his wife Lou, who as an actress successfully strips away the layers of the very kind, warm, and utmost dutiful wife, and has to actually, finally take charge of things, and do things she wouldn't possibly dream usually, like deception. The son, played by Christopher Olson, might be the weakest link of the three, as he has a character who is, of course, just a boy, and even more put to the extreme test by his father's downward spiral. Even with that it's still a believable turn.
It's a piece of subversion that works all the better because of the hidden ambiguities of the ending. The whole facade of things *seemingly* being this way or another, is like one big joke on the audience. But it's not really a funny one; Ray is in your face with his audience, and it's not in a retrospect way either. Things are not all honky-dory in the Eisenhower era, is what Ray says at the core, and at the end it can hardly be read that everything will turn out well for the family. The implications made are much more stronger and lasting than the actual perceived outcome. Will things be under control with the Avary's? Who knows, is what Ray is saying, or that maybe we can learn from mistakes. But the fact that the facade came down like an avalanche is the point. It's even more surprising then to know that this picture is only available on bootlegs, through certain vendors, only occasionally on TV. If you can find it though, it's a real little ruby of a studio picture.
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