If you like Mad Men and its depiction of a disfunctional America in the 1950s/60s, then you’re going to love Bigger Than Life. Based loosely on the New York article “Ten Feet Tall” by medical writer Berton Roueche, Bigger Than Life tells the story of unhappy taxi driver Ed Avery who becomes dangerously addicted to the drug. Since it’s now considered one of the best films of the 1950s, we’ve put together an interesting set of quotes and links that discuss the film’s importance and influence.
God was wrong: Nicholas Ray’s “Bigger Than Life” on Senses of Cinema
On a surface level, Bigger Than Life might ultimately seem a rather conservative film. Its social critique appears to be founded upon the dangers of drug-taking, ideological extremism and divergence from social norms, and its final reinstatement of the family, as the ultimate, enclosed social unit, might seem to be the icing on its status-quo (re)affirming cake. Even its central concern, the dangerous side-effects of cortisone, might seem a little apolitical, unfocused and not exactly urgent (though I think that this is probably the point). But beneath this, and I think it is more readable and “there” than mere subtext, can be found a rigorous questioning of the familial, religious, political and educational values that structure everyday American life (specifically in the mid-1950s).
‘Bigger Than Life’: A Subversive Suburban Surprise by John Powers on NPR (Audio too):
You often hear that American filmmaking hit its peak in the 1970s, but I cast my vote for the supposedly buttoned-down ’50s, a decade flush with weird, dreamy movies in which dark, dangerous themes swam beneath the surface of the story like sharks.
Interviews | Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life: A Conversation with Jonathan Lethem on Cinema Scope:
What I love about the film is the way Ray, in preparing us for this intrusion into daily life, is so scrupulous about creating a real world. For instance, financial pressures are very much a part of the film. It‘s a film about class shame, amongst other things; the tension in Ed’s life as a taxi cab dispatcher, for instance—and though we only glimpse the world of the taxi drivers, it’s a rich social milieu. This family dwells in a very normal town, and they’re a perfect nuclear family, and yet there are so many pressure points, so many fault lines. Another example is the undercurrent of gender discomfort with Mason being a school teacher, as well as the fact that it is obviously not completely comfortable for the male teachers working alongside a beautiful single female teacher. The opening of the film could easily turn into four or five different kinds of melodrama in the Douglas Sirk fashion. The characters rest uneasily on their bed of normality to begin with—and then you lay on top the fantastic intrusion of the medical crisis.
From God, Men and Monsters: Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life on Sinamatic Salve-ation:
I would argue that, in many ways, Bigger Than Life could be viewed as a horror film. It functions on fear, ideas of masculinity and the monstrous and postulates that true terror is catalyzed by the volcanic eruptions of a figure whose conflicts are drawn out by a severe chemical addiction. The lighting, color use and Joseph MacDonald’s cinematography only serve to enhance this, and the fact that it is a CinemaScope film makes it even more horrifying with every frame. As you watch this film, both the narrative and the visual sensibility will tell you that it lives up to the title- this film really is Bigger Than Life.