Just before his death, James Dean expressed an interest in playing Jekyll and Hyde. As it happens, Nicholas Ray – Dean’s best director – did deliver what must stand as the J&H story for the 1950s, the way Altered States is J&H for the 80s and Fight Club is J&H for the Millennium. It’s rooted in social problems that were just beginning to show – not only the abuse of prescription drugs but the way suburban anomie was leading to a kind of insanity that took a while to be noticeable. Ed Avery (James Mason) is a harassed teacher, self-described as a ‘male schoolmarm’, who keeps from his wife Lou (Barbara Rush) that he also works three afternoons a week as ‘Voice’, a taxicab dispatcher, to make ends meet and support a lifestyle of bridge parties and chit-chat and their tyke son Richie (Christopher Olsen). Ed suffers from crippling spells of pain which turn out to be a rare, usually fatal disease and the fatherly physician (Robert F. Simon) suggests the experimental drug cortisone, which does alleviate his physical problems but also tips the nice guy over into psychosis. Soon, he’s doing the unthinkable – applying standards of grown-up criticism to kids’ finger-paintings and suggesting near fascist methods of teaching (best black joke in the film – the one exasperated father in the PTA who agrees with him), then bringing it all home by tyrannising Richie at backyard football throwabouts and while supervising his maths homework.
There’s a touch of the Queegs about the domestic tyrant, especially when the level of milk in a jug reveals that his wife has treacherously given their son a drink when he was on punishment detail, and he at once wants her more sexualised (red dresses) and insists their marriage is over because she is beneath him and he stays in the house only for Richie’s future. When he stops believing in that, finding the kid trying to steal his stash of illegally-gained pills (he’s wildly exceeding the prescribed dosage), he starts reading solemnly from the Bible about Abraham dragging Isaac to the land of Moriah. ‘But Ed, you didn’t read it all,’ pleads Lou. ‘God stopped Abraham.’ In one of the most chilling lines of the 1950s, perfectly delivered by Mason, Ed snaps ‘God was wrong!’ Ray shoots a mostly interior medical melodrama in CinemaScope (and gorgeous colour), and increasingly uses the sort of impressionist tactics found in gothic horror – the smashed bathroom cabinet which fractures Ed’s reflection, the distorted ape-shadows thrown on the wall by lighting as the father figuratively looms over the cowed son, low angles that make Mason seem taller than buildings. Walter Matthau is the normal guy contrast, a happy-go-lucky single teacher who has to step in for a final fight on the stairs with Ed, and Roland Winters (once Charlie Chan) is another pitchman doctor. It has a hug and a vow to hope for the best at the end, but Ray has layered in so many dooms – including the family’s still-pressing money woes, exacerbated by the manic Ed quitting his jobs and running up the tab for his wife’s outfits – that it’s hard to feel any optimism.
The scenes of father tormenting son have a queasy horror, prefiguring The Possession of Joel Delaney, The Shining, The Stepfather, Sleeping With the Enemy and other Psycho Bastard From Hell movies – Mason is so good in these distressing scenes that even a typical 1950s child actor like Olsen is credibly reduced to psychic tatters. Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum are the credited writers, with the source being magazine articles – but Ray and Mason apparently reworked the script themselves. Some carp that the depiction of the reaction to this specific drug is extreme, but that’s plainly beside the point.