CULT MOVIE Blogging: The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

It would appear that size really does matter.

Last night, TCM aired one of my favorite sci-fi movies from the 1950s, Jack Arnold's The Incredible Shrinking Man, based on the novel by Richard Matheson (and with screenplay by Matheson). Starring Grant Williams as Scott Carey, this film concerns a regular 1950s guy who goes through a radioactive cloud and begins to shrink. Nothing can stop the process, and he grows smaller and smaller, to the point that ordinary house critters like cats and spiders become gigantic menaces. The movie ends on the profound and philosophical note that the infinite and the infinitesimal are closely related. As the incredible shrinking man vanishes from our "sight" into the microscopic world, he muses about the wonders of creation that await his gaze. He disappears from our world, yet...he still exists...

I'm a Gen X'er, so The Incredible Shrinking Man is not a revered movie of my "precious" childhood - the era of Star Wars, Logan's Run, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Alien, King Kong, etc. In fact, I can clearly recall watching it on TV when I was young, and liking it a great deal, but perhaps not appreciating its artistry in the manner the film deserved. Today, the film no doubt remains a hallowed movie of the previous generation (the one that grew up with Howard Hawks' The Thing, the Menzies' Invaders from Mars, and Them). I see now that scholars of that generation appreciate this film for good and sound reasons.

Writing in A Pictorial History of Science Fiction Films (Citadel Press, 1975) Jeff Rovin opines that the The Incredible Shrinking Man is "intelligent, frightening, warm and strong in character development and special effects."(page 73). On page 169 of The Film Encyclopedia: Science Fiction (William Morrow, 1983), historian Phil Hardy describes The Incredible Shrinking Man as one of the "great anxiety movie of the fifties" and notes that "Matheson's script perfectly captures the paranoia rampant in Cold War America as the hero's life, marriage and prospects literally collapse around him as he shrinks to oblivion." John Stanley - one of my favorite horror writers thanks to his amazing Creature Features Guide (Creatures at Large Press) - states that "Arnold directed it [the film] beautifully" and that the production "transcends the limitations of the fantasy thriller to deal with the metaphysical aspects of a shrinking human."

This is one of those examples where a cherished icon of a previous generation holds up remarkably well. All these reviewers (and longtime fans) got it right. As a work of cinematic art, The Incredible Shrinking Man speaks very clearly and dynamically to audiences of today too, I noticed, with admiration. Which is I guess the reason someone is remaking it even now. The film is often remembered for the oversized props (like telephones, pin cushions, giant paint sticks, mousetraps and the like) and the for-their-time impressive fx, but what I appreciated most on this 2005 viewing is not the (admittedly superb) production design, but Jack Arnold's ingenuity in telling the story visually, with a minimum of dialogue, especially in the third act. After seeing the really disastrous remake of The Fog this weekend, I was pretty bummed, but then I watched The Incredible Shrinking Man and perked up when I found the visualizations positively lyrical. Throughout the film, the entire frame is utilized to dramatic effect, and Arnolds' compositions not only brilliantly incorporate special effects, but capture the notion of a regular basement transformed into a vast wasteland like mankind has never seen, a world populated by hidden, heretofore unknown dangers. The scene wherein the Williams' character, Carey, must scale a wall and cross over an open box (on a twitchy paint stick...) is some kind of bizarre masterwork of suspense and cutting, heightened by the evocative score supervised by Harris Ashburn. I tried to think about the last time I was so powerfully drawn to one movie character's fight for survival; so entranced by his plight...and well, let's just say it's been a while.

Thematically, of course, The Incredible Shrinking Man is a slam dunk. Although the close-out voice-over narration mentions a grand design calling to Scott, and even the existence of God, I still find this movie to be one of the most powerful existential dramas ever put to celluloid. Think about it: this movie concerns a man whose life shrinks away from him. He loses his job, his wife, his home, his stature and even his security (food and shelter...) as he wastes away into the nothingness. He can't even wear his clothes anymore and so is literally and metaphorically rendered naked before nature. All Scott Carey can look forward to is the abyss, and what the viewer detects most powerfully in the movie's finale is Scott's grappling with what he will ultimately see there, the fact that he is destined for that abyss and will no more return to the world of man.

I realize that film "moral codes" were stricter in the 1950s, forcing the necessity of subtext, but in some senses this was a good thing, The Incredible Shrinking Man appear to function well on many dramatic levels, whereas films like the 2005 The Fog spoon-feed their themes to audiences. In The Incredible Shrinking Man, for instance, I love the scenes wherein Scott has shrunken to 36 inches in height and yet "burns" for the company of his wife Lou. He realizes that because of his...shrinkage...he can no longer "be" with her. So he seeks out his own kind, a member of his new tribe, a beautiful midget from the carnival. She's slightly shorter than he is, which means he can comfortably be attracted to her and join with her...sexually. Yet it's all done with sleight-of-hand, without mention of inferiority complexes, sexual intercourse or anything that like that. But the meaning is plain, and psychologically fascinating.

Watching The Incredible Shrinking Man last night, I was struck by the thought that this spare, 81 minute film probably deserves to be revered on the same scale as the 1933 King Kong, another classic Hollywood adventure/fantasy film. I was actually cringing with fear and tension during the final battle between Scott and the spider, and I was amazed by the scope of "inner" and outer space explored by the film. In King Kong, we explored the vast landscape of Skull Island, replete with giant dinosaurs and apes, but The Incredible Shrinking Man is just as adventurous and ambitious, and perhaps more resonant because it reveals our everyday world - only magnified - rather than a "foreign" one. The Incredible Shrinking Man thus shines a light on the mundane world in ways previously unimagined. The tiniest details, the things we take for granted every day, become obstacles and dangers, and the film asks us, ultimately, to contemplate the nothingness of the abyss; the idea that the very big and the very tiny are, in fact, joined. The cosmos and the micro-cosmos are flip-sides of the same coin. Although Scott's fear that roving radiation clouds will reduce other humans to his plight is an anachronistic Cold War/nuclear Armageddon-fear no longer in touch with our times, the very real fear that we are small, unimportant, insignificant specks who can't change the course of the world is particularly timely today. As we see war, floods, hurricanes and other disasters, we are humbled before nature as Scott Carey is, reduced in some cases to becoming creatures of instinct...fighting to survive in a world that we once believed we had mastered.

I'm glad I stopped watching Supernatural last week, because I found this film on TCM and thoroughly enjoyed re-experiencing it for the first time in probably fifteen years. The Incredible Shrinking Man remains an inventive and dramatic film that reveals, among other things, how the imagination and ingenuity of Hollywood has shriveled and shrunk in the fifty years since Arnold first directed the picture.

Comments

  1. Anonymous6:14 PM

    Right on!

    The Incredible Shrinking Man is one of my all-time favorite films, and though there is much of Jack Arnold’s work I’ve yet to see, I still count him among my favorite directors. I’m thrilled that you pointed out Arnold’s talent for visual storytelling, an essential aspect of his work that never fails to grab and hold my attention.

    I know genre fans tend use words like ‘underrated’ a bit too liberally, but I sincerely believe Jack Arnold to be one of the most undervalued filmmakers of the 50’s. The lasting appeal of his sci-fi and horror films is often attributed to special effects and other technical aspects of the productions, such as the great Gill-Man suit in Creature from the Black Lagoon and the oversized sets and props in Shrinking Man. Many seem to overlook the fact that these movies are more than mere spectacle. Arnold infuses them with depth, intelligence and resonance. Richard Matheson wrote a great script (as usual) for Shrinking Man, but it took a director like Jack Arnold to make it work on screen.

    Speaking of Creature from the Black Lagoon, how long has it been since you’ve seen that one? I’d love to hear what you make of it.

    -Tony Mercer

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  2. Hey Tony!

    Incredible Shrinking Man really is a great movie, isn't it? It had been a good long while since I'd seen it, and I was just knocked-out by how well it stands up today. It's probably been just as long since I've seen Creature from the Black Lagoon. I think it may have been 1992 because I was living in Richmond, I remember...

    That's a great idea though, to feature Creature here too. Maybe it's time for a Jack Arnold retrospective...

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  3. Anonymous2:16 PM

    Speaking of 'shrinking', there's one scene from the book that obviously wouldn't fly at the time. Out hero is accosted by a group of teenagers, who yank down his pants to see if he shrank everywhere.

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