#37: The Incredible Shrinking Man


1957

Director:  Jack Arnold

Cast:  Grant Williams, Randy Stewart, April Kent

Introduction     Plot Summary     Impressions     Wrap-up

My rating:  Class A (3/7, hot white star).  In this spirited outing from the late 1950s (one of our last from that era, and therefore one of our last forays into black-and-white-world), a man must cope with an accident which causes him to shrink.  Yes, that’s right, shrink.  It’s the first of the size change movies, and really quite good.  The movie lacks dogs (whcih is probably a good thing as I would have been upset if a dog had gone after the hero), but it does have a cat.  It garnered very positive critical reviews (both at the time of release and in later years), and in 2009 it was selected for the National Film Registry.  Go out and watch it.

Introduction

The Incredible Shrinking Man is based on a novel by Richard Matheson (The Shrinking Man) (he also gave us I Am Legend which has been made into films several times, one of which, The Omega Man, also made the Top Fifty list).  Matheson must have been the Michael Crichton of the 1950s, though it’s probably not fair to compare the two, as each achieved success on their own terms and merits…

At any rate, the setup for this one is simple and uncomplicated:  Scott Carey is exposed to a mixture of insecticides and radiation, causing him to slowly shrink.  There’s lots of room for this to go wrong, but the film avoids the major pitfalls as Scott’s marriage is strained, he undergoes significant social stress, and then when he becomes quite a bit smaller, battles for survival in a world of giants.  The science for this one is really silly, but it’s also irrelevant as anything other than a way to get the action going.

The acting is solid, and in particular, Grant Williams in the title role has a heavy burden to carry: for a significant chunk of the film, he’s tiny and not interacting with people, but rather animals and the giant world, and his narration drives the story.  Randy Stewart, as Scott’s wife Louise, also delivers a good performance.

The effects are simply amazing.  Mark pointed out that building giant sets is a lot easier than other special effects techniques, and the realism is really quite pleasing.  The green screen effects are, as always, hit and miss, but on a par with anything you see up to the first Star Wars movie.  The effects, as good as they are, never overpower the story.

Plot (Contains Spoilers)

Short summary:  Boy and girl are on a boat.  Boy gets exposed to strange cloud, gets covered in glitter.  Boy starts to shrink.  Boy and girl’s marriage feels the strain.  Boy continues to shrink.  Boy quits job.  Boy shrinks some more.  Boy tries experimental antidote.  Boy stops shrinking.  Boy meets dwarf circus freak girl.  Boy forms friendship with dwarf.  Boy begins shrinking again.  Boy lives in a dollhouse.  Boy fights cat.  Boy gets lost in the basement.  Boy shrinks some more.  Boy battles to find food, water and shelter.  Boy battles flood.  Boy shrinks some more.  Boy battles spider.  Boy shrinks some more.  Boy leaves basement through screen.  Boy looks up into the heavens and accepts his fate, but resolves to go on as a man.

Impressions

The Incredible Shrinking Man is a good, and positive, film without a great deal of mucking about with messages.  It’s intended to entertain and to be a positive film, and it succeeds on both levels.  There’s some pathos and drama involved in Scott Carey’s plight, but he’s a determined and resourceful man and the film concentrates on his more positive mindset.  It acknowledges the bad aspects of the situation without dwelling on them.

Grant Williams, as Scott Carey, delivers a very good performance.  He’s not like a lot of the protagonists in other Top Fifty films.  For starters, he’s blond, and his looks are more all-American than a lot of the leading men in the Top Fifty so far.  Williams’ narration, which begins at the start of the film but becomes the only human voice we hear (with a few exceptions) once he’s marooned in the basement of his house, is good and his performance captures Scott Carey’s frustration, determination to survive, and his acceptance of his fate without losing that determination.

Randy Stewart, as Scott’s wife Louise, is also a blonde.  She, too, does a nice job with her role, effectively conveying first that she’s humoring Scott’s belief that he’s shrinking, and then shock and dismay as she struggles to deal with his situation.  She’s numbly accepting, and never lashes out at Scott for his frustration, but she’s also unable to express her own fears and frustration to Scott.  Yet another blonde, April Kent, plays the dwarf circus freak who counsels Scott to accept his situation and to look for the good in life.  Kent is sweetly sympathetic and charming in her role, and I felt that if Scott had not begun to shrink again, the chemistry between the two might have bloomed into a romance.

Scott’s narration ties together the film, but it also makes the second half or so of the film a first person perspective, something rarely seen in the movies.  We know exactly what Scott is thinking because he can tell us.  It makes the character more real, and it also enables the film to put a very positive spin on what could be an incredibly negative, unhappy ending.

The Incredible Shrinking Man is a feast for the eyes, and the effects are seldom anything but convincing, particularly as Scott gets smaller.  The “green screen” effects sometimes suffer from an obvious shadow which differs from the background, but this is common even today.  The large scale sets and props, however, are without flaw.  It’s fun to see Scott living in a dollhouse, or using a pin for a weapon, or thread for rope, and the film takes full advantage of this.  The “Scott’s eye view” of the cat and of the spider are phenomenal.  The only other weak point is the glitter the cloud leaves behind on Scott’s chest, though it was probably important to establish that something had happened.  I just wish it hadn’t been an effect that brought Ke$ha to mind.

The battle with the spider is a key scene, and it’s very well-done.  But as I watched it I could not help but remember Sam and Frodo’s battle with Shelob the giant spider in The Lord of the Rings (the fight takes place in The Two Towers in the novel, and in The Return of the King in the Peter Jackson films).  The climax of the fight is remarkably similar, as in both cases the spider raises itself up, then pushes down, impaling itself on a pin or on the sword-dagger Sting.  In the novel The Two Towers an orc remarks of the fight that it is the first time anyone has “stuck a pin” in Shelob.  The Two Towers was published in 1954 in Great Britain, and somewhat later in the United States.  The Matheson novel The Shrinking Man was published in 1956, and the movie debuted in 1957.  The timing is pretty tight, and maybe there’s nothing there but parallel thinking, but the scenes are remarkably similar.

The “scientific” explanation for the shrinking is remarkably silly, but it’s also irrelevant to the film.  It’s not technobabble or a science-fictiony explanation, because it doesn’t even rise to that level.  It’s just a wildly impossible way to get the ball rolling.  Scott encounters some insecticide when taking a shortcut through an alley, and when he is later exposed to radiation in the form of a glitter cloud—and the film doesn’t bother to explain where that might have come from—the two combine to make Scott shrink.  Once the doctor has asked the matter-of-fact diagnostic question “Have you been exposed to any insecticides?” and uses that to figure out what’s going on, the film is done with the cause of the shrinking.  And a good thing, too, as it’s the least plausible aspect of any SF film I can remember right offhand.  This comes close to being a big-time plot hole:  if the shrinking is something medicine knows about, how come it’s never happened to anyone else?

As long as we’re on the subject, one other plot hole exists.  Scott uses a paint stirring stick to cross a (to a tiny man, anyway) gaping chasm, but the stick falls into the gap as he jumps.  Later, Scott has somehow crossed that gap again, but it happens offscreen and there’s no telling how it happened or why the gap is no longer a threat.

Thematically the film has a rather positive message for what could have been a depressing and unhappy ending.  Initially the film shows Scott and Louise as a happy bantering couple, obviously in love.  The scene on the boat is pretty important in establishing a baseline level of happiness and devotion, as well as giving us the cloud of radiation which sets the whole unhappy chain of events in motion.  Scott’s mood and situation go through a few ups and downs before disaster strikes in the form of a cat (leading Louise and Scott’s brother Charlie to believe he is dead).

That disaster, though, is what lets Scott show his true mettle.  Now that the fight is an elemental one—for survival, rather than happiness in the world of normal people—Scott is determined to survive.  The determination may be grim, at first, and his attempts to find food and shelter may not be wholly successful, but by the time the basement floods and wipes out his efforts to date Scott has become something more, a man of great ingenuity and resourcefulness.  He’s conscious that he has a man’s intellect, regardless of his size, and that he can survive and prosper if he puts his mind to it.

In the closing scenes of the movie, Scott gazes up at a star-lit sky and ponders the idea that the large and the small are similar, a foreshadowing of continuing shrinking which may open up new worlds.  Scott accepts his fate, looks for the good in his situation as the circus lady Clarice had earlier advised, and determines to meet his future.

Wrap-up

Go out and rent this.  It’s tremendous fun with a neat idea which is well-presented and instead of being maudlin or depressing, it has an uplifting final scene.  It’s a lot less serious than the novel (which explores themes of what it means to be a man, tying that meaning to physical superiority), and while it’s hardly the only film with size changing as a plot device, it’s very well done.

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