We take for granted that there are many films being made at the moment that are able to deal with concepts like mental health and addiction. In fact, if you want to get an Oscar nomination, many actors gravitate to these sorts of roles. However, back in the 1950s these films were not commonplace.
Films like The Snake Pit and The Lost Weekend were able to make such an impact not only because they were great films but also because they brought to the mainstream topics that we don’t tend to talk about in polite society. The same thing can be said about Bigger Than Life which deals with prescription drug addiction and, eventual, psychosis.
Not enough can be said about how fantastic James Mason is in this film. He portrays Ed, a school teacher who is prescribed cortisone to help treat a condition that would eventually kill him. We now know what can happen when people are given high doses of cortisone for a long period of time – when this film is set these side-effects were only just starting to emerge.
The main side effects we see here are mood swings, depression, anxiety, change in personality and the eventual psychosis that ramps up in the film’s final act. Mason has to bring his character through all of these changes that make him going from being a generous and hard working man to an abusive and high-handed man.
There is a scene in a parent-teacher conference that feels like one of the moments where Ed is starting to cross lines he would have never crossed before. As a former teacher I can understand that some of his comments are things he always felt (like how one of his young students could be outsmarted by a gorilla – that made me laugh) but then there is one quote I found particularly interesting:
“Childhood is a congenital disease – and the purpose of education is to cure it.”
You can plot the rest of the film (including his literal and rather shocking interpretation of The Binding of Isaac) from this statement. His continuing breakdown and abuse of his wife and son all stem from this idea of his. The more you listen to him the more and more fascist some of his outbursts become. In 1955, that will have been downright shocking.
Speaking of shocking, the penultimate sequence of this film with its carnivalesque music in the background is fantastically done. You fear for the wife and son as Ed goes through a complete psychotic break is palpable.
It’s only when you remember this is James Mason and the year of production is 1956 that you are able to discount certain outcomes. Still, this is one of those films that feels nearly forgotten and it’s a downright shame.