The very finest of Nicholas Ray’s films is a brilliant expressionist melodrama that used the then-topical controversy over the discovery and deployment of the “wonder drug” cortisone (a type of steroid) to mount a devastating critique on the materialistic, middle-class conformism that defined the American Dream during the post-war era.
The brooding James Mason (who also produced) is perfectly cast as Ed Avery, a small-town teacher beset by worries about money and middle age who, having been prescribed steroids, becomes addicted to the sense of well-being they bring.
This turns him into an irascible, neurotic, megalomaniac tyrant to his wife, son and everyone around him.
The drug, of course, is merely the catalyst that ignites the loathing he feels for himself and the staid, complacently unquestioning world in which he is trapped.
Indeed, his despair goes so deep that when, finally, he decides he must save his son from the depravities of humanity by killing him, and his wife (Barbara Rush) reminds him that God stopped Abraham from killing Isaac, Mason simply responds “God was wrong!”.
A profoundly radical Hollywood movie, then, distinguished not only by its distaste for suburban notions of ‘normality’ but by the beautifully nightmarish clarity of its intensely coloured CinemaScope imagery. A masterpiece.