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Bigger Than Life

September 13, 2010

312. Bigger Than Life
Directed by Nicholas Ray
USA, 1956
IMDB | allmovie

Reviewed by Ally
Second viewing


Elementary school teacher Ed Avery (James Mason) lives the suburban dream with his wife Lou (Barbara Rush) and son Richie (Christopher Olson), funding it by secretively working a second job as a taxi dispatcher. When Ed is diagnosed with a rare, usually fatal condition, he is given experimental drug cortisone. It seems to be a miracle cure, but Ed begins to overmedicate and experiences unsettling side effects — a newly-found cavalier attitude towards the family’s finances, wild mood swings and eventually psychosis.

Essential Scene:

Ed reaches the pinnacle of his psychosis. Having caught Richie trying to steal the cortisone pills, Ed decides he must save his son from a life of crime. He explains his plan to Lou, reading from the Bible and brandishing a pair of scissors. She realises with mounting horror what Ed has in mind.

Ed: “Take thou son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get ye into the land of Moriah and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.” And Abraham rose up early in the morning and took Isaac his son and clave the wood for the burnt offering and went unto the place of which God had told him. Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place afar off. And they came to the place of which God had told him, and Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar upon the wood. And Abraham stretched forth his hand and took the knife to slay his son.

Lou puts her hand on Ed’s arm, trying desperately to talk him out of it.

Lou: But Ed, you didn’t read it all. God stopped Abraham.

Ed: God was wrong.


Nicholas Ray brought art house ideas to mainstream American cinema, and for that I greatly admire him — to the extent that my band named a song after him. Bigger Than Life may not be my favourite Ray film but it has much to recommend it. On the surface it’s a scintillatingly melodramatic tale of drug abuse and mental instability but, if you’ll allow me to don my pretentious cap, it can also be considered an indictment of the conformism and materialism of suburbia and the American Dream. No wonder it was a box office flop in America but a critical success in Europe!

Bigger Than Life is available on Region A-locked blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

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