Meet Ed Avery (James Mason), your standard issue Eisenhower-era paterfamilias. He works dutifully as a school teacher, making sure to tussle the necessary mop-tops when called upon, as well as taking over in a pinch for overburdened colleagues. His home, proud and sturdy in that typically palatial way, stands as a bulwark against all perceived enemies, both foreign and domestic. And, in a final act of duty and responsibility, he works nights as a taxi dispatcher, making sure to keep such information from his wife, lest she think of him as less than a good and decent provider. Heís also in pain — excruciating pain — and itís all he can do to remain vertical during the sort of terrifically dull dinner party that just has to be followed by a few hundred rounds of bridge. Yes, Ed is dying, of a rare vascular disease that may or may not exist in the literature, and he has less than a year to live. A year! But there is hope. You see, thereís this experimental new treatment called cortisone. Maybe youíve heard of it. Some say itís a miracle drug, others arenít so sure. But itís the only hope our dear Ed has of survival, even if heís not usually a gambling man.
And so begins Edís trial by fire, a process that will take him from meek and mild to bold and murderous, creating a sea change that might appear preposterous to a modern eye not imaginative enough to read between the lines. Edís rapid transformation into ravenous beast, while not instantaneous (we see him racking and heaving with pain for weeks and weeks while a handy on-screen bar graph shows us how increased doses reduce the pain), is damn near complete, and we can accept that full-tilt insanity is just about the only response to a decade that reduced individuality to a revolutionary act. Ed has disappeared into his role as husband and father, a fact he recognizes as he insults his wife one evening before the madness has fully taken hold. ďWeíre dull,Ē he shrugs, not knowing that within a short period of time, he will become a fevered, sweat-drenched maniac who is anything but. Once again, anyone who thinks this is some simple cautionary tale about drugs and hubris is more than mistaken; they will have missed one of the eraís most withering attacks on conformity, even if a man has to damn near butcher his son to shake off the shackles of oppression.
The first sign that Ed has gone off the rocker is when he spontaneously takes his wife and son out for an afternoon of wild, reckless spending. Forget the need for a second job, he crows, and to hell with the guilt over writing hot checks. He even enters a snooty dress shop with the sort of confidence not usually found in a man that surrendered his sack at the altar. More than smiling, heís strutting, and what does his wife care, as she now has the evening gown sheís always craved from afar. Little Richie even has the bestest bicycle in the whole neighborhood. Ah, but we all know that dad canít simply be Santa Claus, so itís just a matter of time until the fangs come out, which means that dad will insist on resurrecting his glory days on the gridiron. Obsessive to a point that would make Al Bundy blush, Ed pumps up his withering football from†times gone by and never leaves poor Ritchie alone from then on. He wants to toss the pigskin indoors, outdoors, in the kitchen, and in the field. He throws harder and harder, knocking vases from their stands and little boys from their once secure perches. Ed wonít accept a frail little boy, no sir. He must be toughened for the road ahead, even if that means screeching in his face that dropped passes mean no dinner. Now or ever!
Edís in a groove now, barking at drivers going too slow or, in a particularly nasty scene, exploding at the milkman for rattling his bottles with disrespect. He even accuses the mousy gent of being jealous of Edís intellectual gifts. ďIíll have your job!Ē, Ed spits, seizing the first of many opportunities to finally tell these deadbeats what he thinks. He even lets loose on the job, reducing a PTA meeting to an exercise in gratuitous cruelty. He rails about the stupidity of the kids under his care, and lashes out at shocked mothers and horrified fathers alike. Ed no longer wants to teach the children about reading and writing and all manner of nonsense. He wants fire and brimstone in the classroom; rigorous courses in self-reliance, masculine virtue, and tough-minded moral rectitude. He wants leaders, not followers, with tears being left at the door with mommy. By god, heíll tear the whole damn system down if given the chance, with no one holding him back, especially his sniveling, inferior wife.
In a dinner scene later borrowed by American Beauty, Ed humiliates his gasping spouse so completely that it registers as a near-perfect illustration of marital compromise gone haywire. Until now, Ed had paid the bills, punched his clock, and clicked glasses with hollow friends, but now heís finished. Even though he will stay at home to raise ďhisĒ boy in a manner that will ensure he doesnít emerge on other side wearing a dress, Ed is now, at least in his own mind, divorced from his wife. He wants nothing to do with her, and will treat her as a piece of furniture if need be. Itís a huzzah moment for organization men everywhere, even if thereís a pull of guilt about what this means for junior. Heís no dummy, and he hates his father with extreme prejudice, especially since dad flipped the fuck out over a glass of milk that came before dinner and wasnít pre-approved. Richie knows that itís the pills making dad act with hurricane-force rage, but that doesnít make it any easier to endure a math lesson that approximates a Nazi show trial. So Richie has to act. He must cut off the supply.
This isnít as easy as it sounds, as Ed will surely die if he stops taking his drugs. Richie doesnít care about such small details, and dad damn well knows it. So at long last, dad must kill his son, citing the parable of Abraham and Isaac as proof that murdering oneís children has Biblical justification. But god stopped the killing, Edís wife shouts, which prompts Edís classic retort: ďGod was wrong!Ē He grabs a pair of scissors and prepares for his final act; one borne of love and respect, not drug-induced hysteria. He demands that his wife join in the experience, as it makes perfect sense for both to commit suicide after Richie has been sent to the angels. Many a parent has killed a child to spare it from compromise, weakness, and sin, so what on earth could be the problem?
Leave it to Walter Matthau to save the day, the resident closeted homosexual (he’s disinterested in his “date”, while coming to life when discussing a possible†trip with†Ed†and nothing more†than a few sleeping bags) who keeps Ed from becoming too independent, yet†resigned to a life of domestic tranquility, by beating his ass on the stairs. It’s a full-fisted brawl, but necessary to demonstrate that at his core, Ed isn’t even man enough to handle a mincing queer. Now subdued, Ed must continue to take the drug, but in proper doses, and without posing as a doctor to steal hundreds of pills for late-night binges. He must be brought back into the fold, quiet as a lamb and surrounded by mediocrity.†A lion now tamed, he ends the film in†a fatherly embrace, emasculated once again and ready to resume his role as resident sap.†And yes, dear, heíll call the cab company tomorrow. With hat in hand.