The film is based on an article for The New Yorker called "Ten Feet Tall", by the famous medical writer Berton Rouechénote . It's one of the first films to deal with the problems of prescription drugs and its side effects.
Ed Avery (James Mason) is a teacher in a small American suburban town with a wife Lou (Barbara Rush) and son (Christopher Olsen). On the outside the family is a suburban middle class family, but on the inside they are struggling to make ends meet with Avery holding two jobs to provide for them, being both teacher and a taxi-cab operator. His working life takes a toll on him and he has a breakdown with the doctor noting that his condition would be fatal unless he takes a new drug cortisone but is cautioned to take it only in the prescribed doses. Ed, formerly quite sober and even a little morose, finds that the drug provides him a genuine "high" and he becomes progressively more confident and active in his family and workplace. This high is so pleasing to him that he starts experimenting with the dosage, and his friends, wife and son grow increasingly disconcerted at his new more unpredictable and random personality.
- Abusive Parents: Cortisone!Ed gets progressively nasty and abusive towards his own son, emotionally and psychologically. He starts withholding food to force him to improve at math and in the finale tries to murder him. Richie gets fed up with this behavior:Richie: I'd rather you be dead then have you living like this.
- Arc Words: The word "big", which is in the title, recurs throughout. Wally notes that after going on medication, Ed starts acting like a "bigshot". In the end, after Ed, heavily sedated and seemingly recovered from his psychosis, says on waking up that he had a dream about Lincoln:Ed Avery: "I walked with Abraham Lincoln. And he was as big, and ugly, and beautiful, as he was in life."
- As the Good Book Says...: The finale pivots on the story of Abraham and Isaac, which is read out in full except for the part where God stops Abraham from killing Isaac.
- Blasphemous Boast: In the finale after they go to Church and listen to the preacher discussing Abraham and Isaac, Avery starts ranting about the real meaning of that parable and identifies with Abraham. His wife Lou, frightened at the implication that Avery wants to kill his son, tries to remind him that God stopped Abraham from killing Isaac. To which, Avery shuts the Bible with force and yells:Ed Avery: "God was wrong!".
- Conspicuous Consumption: The famous shopping spree sequence where Ed splurges on expensive clothes and bicycles for his wife and son. It ends up wiping out their credit, and later Lou has to sell some other dresses to make up for her husband's impulse purchases.
- Daylight Horror: The film takes place in bright interiors and daylight, but it gets progressively more and more disturbing as Avery gets crazier and crazier. The finale when Avery tries to kill his son takes place in broad daylight and it's horrifying.
- Denied Food as Punishment: Cortisone!Ed insists that Richie play well at football or he won't get lunch. When Richie fails, Ed forbids him lunch or even supper, and then forces him to do math problems in a half-starved state. His wife manages to smuggle Richie some milk, and Ed goes ballistic when he finds out that she went behind his back like that.
- Extreme Doormat: Lou, Ed's wife, is a 50s housewife who more or less devotes everything to her family. When the cortisone starts making Ed dangerous and insane, she refuses to commit Ed to a clinic out of fear of social stigma as well as doctor's expenses. She decides to subjugate herself to Ed's verbal and emotional abuse for the sake of her son, Richie. This nearly turns to disaster since it almost gets the two of them killed by Ed.
- I Coulda Been a Contender!: Ed Avery is regarded as a brilliant schoolteacher and in college he apparently played a crucial part in winning a football trophy. He's generally frustrated with his life as a low-paid, overworked family man with a dull social life; the cortisone abuse magnifies those frustrations by making him overcompensate for missing out, resulting in spending sprees, attempts at educational reform in the high school and in his view, taking an active view in his son's rearing. The house itself is filled with travel posters to European countries which Ed wants to visit but can't.
- Jekyll & Hyde: Normal Ed Avery is a somewhat morose sad sack of a teacher but an otherwise good husband, teacher and father. Ed Avery high on cortisone is a dangerously unstable Mood-Swinger with delusions of grandeur who tries to murder his son.
- Mood-Swinger: A side-effect of cortisone is that it can induce depressive episodes as a consequence of the high it provides to Ed. This makes his lows even worse; his moods can go from confident to violently angry to menacing and bullying and then back to general calmness in a jiffy.
- Morton's Fork: Lou and Ed Avery know that the cortisone drug has side-effects that make her husband erratic and unstable. But if he doesn't take cortisone he will die within a year as a result of arterial inflammation. They can't afford more visits to the hospital, and they can't withstand the stigma and expense of going to a clinic. So Lou more or less feels she has to accept forcing herself and her son to enable a crazy, unstable and violent individual.
- Only Sane Man: Walter Matthau's character Wally Gibbs is this. He's affable, acts like a honorary uncle for Richie, cares for Ed and is genial about the boring and dull aspects of high school PTA meetings.
- Pater Familicide: In the climax when Cortisone!Ed decides to kill his son, his wife Lou tries desperately to talk him out of it, to which Ed replies, "You don't expect to go on living after this, do you?".
- Spiritual Successor:
- American Beauty, which also dealt with a middle-aged father of a family developing a midlife crisis, experimenting with drugs and alienation and angst about his role as family man.
- Breaking Bad, a drama about a teacher frustrated with his low-paying job and failed ambitions who becomes unstable after a fatal medical condition makes him drastically change his life.
- Martin Scorsese sees this as one to Ray's previous film Rebel Without a Cause, another film about Stepford Suburbia which dealt with teenagers and more or less presented a caricatured portrayal of parents. Bigger Than Life portrays the same kind of environment from the view of the parents.
- Nicholas Ray was greatly inspired by Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and saw this film as a Spiritual Adaptation of the same idea of a "working-class tragedy" and the failure deriving from the hero living and stretching himself beyond his means.
- Stepford Suburbia: One of many films made in The 50s that offered Unbuilt Trope Genre Deconstruction of that lifestyle.
- Title Drop: The page quote refers to the article "Ten Feet Tall" from which it is based.
- Unbuilt Trope: Bigger Than Life is one of many films made in The 50s that cast a darker light on some of the obsessions of that decade: the suburban "keeping up with the Joneses" mentality (here shown as an attempt by a family straining themselves and living beyond their means), Conspicuous Consumption, and the Nuclear Family (which descends into the father becoming a tyrant of the home). Moreover it deals with prescription drug abuse far before it became a major public issue in American society.
- Unconfessed Unemployment: Played with. Ed Avery hides the fact that he's taken a second job as a taxi cab call operator because his regular teacher's salary does not allow him to provide a standard of living that, to him, Lou and Richie deserve.