50’s Sci-Fi Feature #5 – The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

IncredibleShrinkingMan-posterThe Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
Directed by: Jack Arnold
Written by: Richard Matheson (based on The Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson)
Starring: Grant Williams, Randy Stuart, April Kent, Paul Langton, Billy Curtis

The Incredible Shrinking Man might be the most horrifying and surreal of any film we’ve taken a look at during our 50’s Sci-Fi marathon.  The 1957 classic may come off as pulpy, completely unbelievable, and hackneyed, but what we have here is a genuinely original and interesting picture.  Based on acclaimed writer Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man and produced by Universal Pictures, it’s no wonder Jack Arnold’s film had endured the test of time and stands as a classic all these decades later.  Rather than capitalizing on the paranoia and distrust of Western culture of the time, Shrinking Man explores themes of masculinity and what happens when a man can go no longer be a traditional man.  Director Jack Arnold made an entire career out of directing cult science fiction fare that would grow to be hailed as classics by modern historians and critics.  His filmography includes sci-fi classics like It Came From Outer Space, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Tarantula, and the Peter Sellers comedy vehicle The Mouse That Roared.  The film stars Grant Williams as Scott Carey, and Randy Stuart as Louise Carey, Scott’s wife.  While Grant Williams was never quite able to relive the success of The Incredible Shrinking Man, his co-star Randy Stuart had an impressive career that saw her work side by side with established leading actors like Clifton Webb, William Holden, and Cary Grant, as well as being featured on many acclaimed television shows.  Despite its relative lack of star power or budget, The Incredible Shrinking Man was both a critical and financial success, doubling its budget at the box office and earning acclaim for its intelligent script and incredibly exciting action set pieces.  The film is also notable for winning the first official Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, one of the highest annual honors for science fiction, horror, and fantasy films.  Like many of the other films covered during our 50’s Sci-Fi marathon, The Incredible Shrinking Man has the honour of sitting in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.

The film begins with Scott Carey (Grant Williams) and his wife Louise (Randy Stuart) alone on a boat one evening.  While Louise is below deck, a strange cloud touches down upon the boat and coats Scott’s exposed skin in an odd mist-like substance.  Thinking nothing of the incident, the couple go back to their California home and everything continues on in a perfectly normal manner.  That is, until six months later when Scott notices that his normally perfectly tailored clothes have become too big for him.  After his clothing situation continues to get worse and worse, Scott sees his family physician who assures him that he’s in perfect health and shouldn’t worry about anything.  After Louise notices a significant decrease in her husband’s height (she no longer needs to stand on her tiptoes to kiss him), the two seek out an x-ray for proof.  Scott learns from an investigative medical team that the mist he was exposed to what radioactive, and his molecular structure has been rearranged as a result.  Scott continues to shrink in size and must quit his work as a result.  He can no longer do simple things he has been doing for his entire life, and relies on Louise and his brother Charlie (Paul Langton) for support.  Eventually a supposed cure is found, which arrests Scott’s shrinking problem, but does not return him to his former height.  After a period of stabilization, Scott realizes that he is once again rapidly shrinking. Soon, Scott is small enough to live inside a dollhouse.  His relationship with Louise rapidly disintegrates, and his own household cat soon becomes a danger to Scott’s life.  After a particularly close call with the cat, Scott becomes trapped in the basement of his home, from which he can find no escape.  Louise and Charlie assume that the cat has killed and eaten Scott, and the two mourn the loss of their beloved Scott.  Now a widow, Louise arranges to move from the house she shared with her husband.  Can Scott find his way out of his own dangerous basement before it’s too late, or will the mysterious radiation side effect take his life before he can reach his wife?  Find out the answer in 1957’s The Incredible Shrinking Man!

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A shrinking Scott Carey (Grant Williams) in 1957’s The Incredible Shrinking Man.

Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man is without a doubt the biggest surprise I’ve had watching a film for quite some time.  I went into it fully expecting to laugh at the schlocky story and to poke fun at its dated ideas and special effects, but I did none of these things.  Instead, I found myself constantly being challenged by the challenging ideas regarding masculinity and what it means to be a man – specifically a man in an era when women were still held down on such a wide scale.  While the idea of a man shrinking to a size so small that he’s forced to live in a dollhouse (and eventually fight to the death with a spider) may seem silly at first glance, the ideas presented in The Incredible Shrinking Man are horrifying.  Everything that defined Scott Carey as a modern American man is taken away from him in a matter of months.  He loses his wife, his job, his friends, his hopes and ambitions, and even his very own identity. Those are incredibly high stakes no matter who you ask, and none of them are played for cheap laughs in the film, nor are they are handled clumsily by the filmmakers.  Jack Arnold’s direction of the film is quite wonderful, presenting a believable case of a man shrinking and being unable to stop it.  His serious handling of a subject matter that could so easily be played in a comedic way deserves a great deal of praise.  Instead of laughing at or rolling my eyes at the ever-changing life of Scott Carey, I was genuinely drawn into the story and found myself sympathizing for this poor man.  I suppose it helps that the screenplay was adapted by the author of the original story, the great Richard Matheson.  Matheson’s handling of his own adaptation is subtle and delicate, perfectly bringing to life an almost impossible concept – radiation poisoning that leads to shrinking.  While the subject matter found in The Incredible Shrinking Man is different than most sci-fi films of the era, it still manages to tap into the general fear of atomic power.  The nature of Scott’s sickness is completely unique and has never been seen before, and the entire thing is chalked up to being a side effect of prolonged exposure to radiation.  The fear of the unknown powers held by atomic energy can very much be felt in the early moments of the film.  These themes help Shrinking Man stay relevant in the same ways as its more paranoid contemporaries, and is probably one of the many reasons this picture still holds up today.  While the performance of Grant Williams’ performance doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel, his presence in the film is just emotional enough to make the audience feel for Scott Carey.  The incredible special effects that seemingly shrink Williams down to the size of a spider hold up incredibly well for what is essentially just Grant Williams playing with life-sized props.  The film takes a dramatic shift in tone once Scott has been lost in his basement, turning into a much quieter, desperate film.  We see Scott struggle to find sources of food, battle with nature, and struggle for survival amongst things that were once simple household objects to him.  The tone here is much darker than the first two acts of the film, and helps really elevate the stakes to a truly remarkable level.  The last act of the film is where The Incredible Shrinking Man truly shines, as we get to marvel at the film’s incredible set pieces and special effects.  This all builds to the film’s incredibly sudden and pitch black ending, giving the audience a simultaneous sense of hope and doom.  No matter how you interpret the film’s bleak ending, it’s one that will no doubt resonate with you long after the credits have rolled.

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One of the most famous set pieces in Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man.

The Incredible Shrinking Man continues a long streak of incredibly impressive and timeless science fiction tales that have managed to stand the often brutal Hollywood test of time.  By handling its subject matter in an evenhanded and mature way, Richard Matheson’s already terrific subject matter is elevated to a whole new level.  What should be a completely forgettable and schlocky B-movie is instead an incredibly memorable experience that takes a good hard look at masculinity in 1950’s America, the uprising of women in the workforce, and of the unknown nature of atomic energy.  The film soars above many of its contemporaries by featuring tremendous and believable special effects, a solid lead performance, and some great effort from a veteran director and writer.  The Incredible Shrinking Man is highly recommended.

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Filed under 50's Sci-Fi, Reviews

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