A superbly shot critique of the suffocating conformity, repression and materialism at the heart of middle-class life, Bigger Than Life is the American Beauty of 50s cinema.
It may not be as well known to audiences as Rebel Without A Cause and In A Lonely Place, but Nicholas Ray's allegorical domestic melodrama lays claim to being the maverick American director's finest and most subversive work.
First released in 1956 to mediocre reviews, it stars the brooding James Mason, an overworked and dissatisfied suburban schoolteacher forced to supplement his income by working on the switchboard of a taxi firm. Diagnosed with an incurable inflammation of the arteries, Ed is prescribed the experimental 'wonder drug' Cortisone by his doctors. Initially his levels of self-confidence and energy are powerfully boosted, but the psychological side-effects prove alarming.
Scorning his life of "petty domesticity", he begins to bully loving wife Lou (Barbara Rush) and child (Christopher Olsen). And his ideas for megalomaniac educational schemes are followed by homicidal feelings towards the very people he loves.
Shooting in Cinemascope, Ray brilliantly uses bold colours, expressionistic shadows, and the precise framing of domestic architecture (particularly of the staircase in the family home), to convey both atmosphere and meaning. Ed's transformation involves moments of darkly ironic humour, not least his speech at a parents' evening, where he derides the children as "moral midgets". "Childhood is a congenital disease," he declares, "the task of education is to cure it."
The drugs in the film serve as a catalyst for the emergence of Ed's hitherto repressed frustrations and anxieties. Yet although Bigger Than Life can be read metaphorically as the playing out of murderous desires, it retains an emotional force because of the intensity by which Mason conveys his character's profound torment.