It's no wonder one of the greatest defenders of Nicholas Ray's 1956 film Bigger than Life is Jonathan Lethem, a novelist. The movie, although certainly cinematic in its visuals, has a story built more like a novel's. Its portrait of a typical American family carefully treading a class line and held together through a sense of routine dullness only to have its unstable roots exposed through happenstance comes less from the world of the cinema of that time than its literary brethren, writers like John Cheever and Richard Yates.
The film follows school teacher and part-time taxi dispatcher Ed Avery, played wonderfully by the great James Mason, as he goes through a battle with the drug cortisone, prescribed to hopefully overcome a painful and fatal inflammation of the arteries. Avery begins relying too heavily on the drug, eventually beginning to overdose, which leads him spiraling out of control into a towering, fascistic overlord, terrorizing his family and ruling over his students with disdain for their tiny minds.
Like the contemporary literary novels of the time, the film runs heavily on subtext. Director Nicholas Ray, who also had a heavy hand in the film's script, crafts moments where much is shown and hinted at while little is said. Emblematic of this is the extraordinary design of the Averys' house. Drab with only slight hints of color, the house represents a middle class family with aspirations exceeding its grasp. There is a yearning for both a future prosperity and a nostalgia-tinted past seen through the travel posters and ancient maps hung throughout the house representing exotic locations the family has never visited. A football commemorating a high school triumph of Ed's is given over-prominence displayed in the center of the mantelpiece. Ed's wife Lou attempts to be a modern domestic goddess within the same kitchen that houses a decrepit, outdated water heater.
The focus of the film is Ed's psychological breakdown, but the brilliance of Ray is to eschew the typical movie madness of histrionics and distorted realities by making Ed's insanity take the form of a sort of heightened reality, a horrific exaggeration of The American Dream of class mobility and achievement stifled only by lack of determination. Ray subverts ordinary values like education, physical achievement, beauty, and morality by inflating them to levels titularly bigger than life, so grandiose that they become monstrous.
The primary victim of Ed's madness is his son, whose name, Richie, may itself be an indicator of Ed's already present desire to see his son not only succeed, but exceed. Ed lords his own achievements over Richie, demanding that he excel at football and his studies the same way Ed has. It's telling that the crisis moment at the film's climax, the moment that throws Ed into the deepest depths of his madness, comes when Richie confronts him on his failures. Although he made one big play in one big game, Ed was a second-string player, and although certainly smart, his education has landed him the less-than-glamorous position of an elementary school teacher in the suburbs.
This generational tension was nothing new to Nicholas Ray. Bigger Than Life was released only a year after Ray's groundbreaking Rebel Without a Cause. Ray understood that tension in a sublime way, and showed it by investigating its origins as less an antagonistic rage or a burden of disappointments, but as a fraught search for personal identity. Early in the film Richie looks up to Ed as someone to emulate, but eventually sees his father's inherent weaknesses, and comes to define himself against those. Ed tries to build the boy up to be at least as accomplished as he is, if not more so, but each of the boy's failings only holds up a mirror to his own.
The movie makes many of its points subtly, not through overt pronouncements but through tone, juxtaposition, and small moments of characterization, which helps to make its shocking grand denouement feel as bizarre and surreal as it does. This reserved approach was both a fashion of the time, but also a necessary subversion of Hollywood politics. Ray wanted the doctors to appear more villainous, as in the original article the story was based on, in which the school teacher who takes too much cortisone doesn't do so through overdosing, but through his doctors prescribing him inordinately large doses to test his "upper limits." However, doctors' groups pressured the studio into painting them in a much better light, causing Ray to write them as more benevolent, but film them as menacing, looming figures.