From the video case: One of the best science fiction films of the 50s offers a fantastic story that ponders man’s tentative place in the universe. When an ordinary businessman encounters a mysterious radioactive mist during a boating trip, his life takes a bizarre and frightening twist. Soon his physical size begins to dwindle and in a couple of weeks he shrinks to a mere two inches. Now the most benign household objects and situations become threats to his life. Filled with wonderful special effects, including Grant Williams battling a “monstrous” house cat, and an intelligent screenplay, The Incredible Shrinking Man is now looked upon by film buffs and critics as a classic of the genre. (1957, b&w)
Mark says: Don’t let the title fool you, The Incredible Shrinking Man is one of the most unique and well done sci-fi/fantasy films of the 1950s. With great direction by Jack Arnold (It Came from Outer Space, Creature from the Black Lagoon) and a screenplay by Richard Matheson (based on his novel) this film could scarcely go wrong (even with a questionable producer like Albert Zugsmith).
The Incredible Shrinking Man is not only an enjoyable science fiction adventure, but it can be appreciated on a philosophical level, too. Various viewers have interpreted the film as a statement on man’s place in the universe, a tale of the ultimate male anxiety, or even an example of existential cinema.
Grant Williams (The Monolith Monsters, The Leech Woman) plays Scott Carey, a simple businessman married to a caring wife, Louise (Randy Stuart). There is nothing extraordinary about his life. That is, until he encounters a mysterious mist during a boating trip and begins to shrink.
It’s a slow process, at first. In fact, it isn’t until six months later that Scott notices that his clothes don’t fit him any more. Initially, he laughs it off, but eventually, the changes are too marked to ignore.
Of course, we know that Scott Carey is shrinking (the title is a big tip off), but Jack Arnold maintains a sense of anxiety and anticipation even with this bit of foreknowledge. Simple events, such as Scott asking his wife to buy a bathroom scale, or the whistling-past-the-graveyard jokes about his “weight loss,” gradually build to the inevitable realization that Scott Carey is getting smaller.
Even Scott’s doctor (William Schallert, who you’ll recognize from, among other things, Them! and The Man from Planet X) is reluctant to acknowledge his condition. However, after a series of X-rays, there is no doubt as to Mr. Carey’s predicament. Scott is sent to a specialist.
Dr. Silver (Raymond Bailey; Tarantula) discovers Scott is losing bone mass through a type of “anti-cancer.” Apparently, the radioactive fog Scott traveled through at the beginning of our tale, in combination with a large dose of insecticide he was exposed to later, has caused Scott’s body to react in a way unheard of in the annals of medical history.
We not only witness Scott Carey shrink, but we are privy to the disintegration of his bonds with humanity. Scott’s own brother, Charles (Paul Langton; Invisible Invaders), suggests that he sell his story to the highest bidder. Scott soon becomes the main attraction in his own one-man freak show.
The most painful aspect of Scott’s condition, though, is the breakdown of his relationship with his wife. As he shrinks, he feels increasingly inadequate. Doctor bills are piling up, and he can no longer work. At one point he tells Louise, “There is a limit to your obligation.” Louise is obviously suffering, too, but stands by her (incredible shrinking) man.
It’s interesting to watch Scott’s demeanor change as he gets smaller. He becomes more tyrannical as his feelings of inadequacy rise. He seems to know he is driving his wife away, but somehow, he can not stop himself.
He eventually finds solace in a friendship (or is it something more?) with a pretty carnival midget, Clarice (April Kent). Kent, by the way, is not really a little person (though two little people, Billy Curtis and Luce Potter, are featured in brief scenes). As Scott shrinks further, he even alienates Clarice.
Scott finds himself living in a dollhouse within his once happy home. A series of mishaps, which culminates in Scott doing battle with the family cat and getting knocked into the basement, launches the second portion of the film.
Reduced to the barest elements of survival (finding food, shelter, water), he surveys a bleak, and unfriendly landscape. Except for occasional narration, this portion of the film lacks any significant dialog, which emphasizes a mood of utter isolation.
Scott finds a nemesis in a giant spider that has built its web near the only food source (a stale piece of cake left near a cellar window). His encounters with the arachnid are exceptionally terrifying. Even as an adult, I shudder during the spider sequences. His final battle with the spider is a surprisingly repulsive event. When Scott lances the beast, bug gunk spurts down the makeshift sword, oozing onto Scott’s arms and clothes. It certainly won’t put you in the mood for pudding.
I have to say, for a film of this budget and era, the special effects are extremely good. Even the use of giant props (e.g. an oversized pencil, a gargantuan matchstick, etc) do not look hokey. Thank Heavens that someone like Bert I. Gordon did not get hold of this script first.
Speaking of the script, writer Richard Matheson was not initially impressed with the movie. It wasn’t until years later, when his son pointed out to him how unusual the film was for its time, that he started to appreciate it for the piece of classic cinema that it is.
Most unusual for a film of its era is the non-happily-ever-after ending. Scott is never rescued; there is no cure, and, as far as we know, he never sees his wife again. It’s really kind of depressing.
But the film is not a complete downer. Scott finds purpose as he resolves to dominate his world. He comes to terms with Nature, and at one point even states he no longer views the spider as an enemy, but simply as a fellow creature fighting for survival.
And as Scott shrinks into nothingness, he finds a sort of acceptance in the idea that, no matter how small he gets, he is part of something bigger. Something important.
This is all conveyed through his final voice-over (see “line to listen for” below), which also has an unusual element to it. His concluding speech is not interpreted for us. Instead, we are left pondering Scott’s fate and the precise meaning of his parting message.
It’s difficult not to feel somewhat moved.
The Incredible Shrinking Man is definitely Jack Arnold’s best effort, and deserves its classic status.
Scene to watch for: Literally seconds after Louise comforts Scott by telling him she’ll always be his wife as long as he is wearing his wedding band, the ring slips off his finger.
Line to listen for: “And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away, and in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something, too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist.”
Trivia: The giant droplets that fall on Scott’s matchbox house are actually condoms filled with water.
Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! ! ! out of 5.