The Incredible Shrinking Man


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The Incredible Shrinking Man (U.S., 1957) * * *
D: Jack Arnold

Every night on Turner Classic Movies is a theme night, and last night's was, somewhat inausipiciously, Jack Arnold Night. No slight to Jack Arnold, it's just that he's not frequently the subject of movie marathons. Best known, perhaps, as the director of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, the last of Universal's great monsters, Arnold also directed films as varied as The Mouse That Roared (the other film I watched last night) and Tarantula. He quickly retreated into television work, and his last credits include episodes of "The Love Boat."

The Incredible Shrinking Man might be his seminal science fiction film, and one of the most distinctive of the 1950's. For that reason, as a lifelong science fiction fan, this was a much overdue viewing. I already knew the ending, which is rather famous. It's everything that precedes it that was foreign.

Grant Williams turns in a surprisingly interesting performance as Scott Carey, a--um, white guy--who is sailing with his wife when he passes through a radioactive cloud (she's busy belowdeck, and doesn't suffer the exposure). He wipes some glitter off himself and doesn't give it much thought, until he goes to his doctor to find out why all of his clothes have lately seemed a couple sizes too large. "Have you been exposed to any radiation lately?" Actually, it's the combination of exposure to insecticide and radiation that caused this particular condition, which I suppose explains why other people just get, you know, cancer from radiation exposure. (So remember that combination, kids: DDT and radiation!) After a while he begins to look like Lily Tomlin in that big chair, and he's downright adorable, but he also feels like a freakshow, and takes solace with a midget carnival performer (April Kent) who, wouldn't you know, is just played by an actress also sitting in a big chair. He can't believe his luck, and neither can we. But as he prepares to cheat on his wife with someone his own size, the shrinking (which comes in waves) returns, and he becomes so small that his wife keeps him in a doll house, leading to the famous scene where he's attacked by his household cat. Which makes the viewer immediately wonder how his or her own domestic animal would treat the owner when suddenly shrunk to doll-size. Judging by the leisure activities of my own two dogs, I can only assume they would whip me back and forth and then chew until they found my hidden squeaker. At any rate, Scott is tossed into the cellar and now must contend with new problems--such as how to remove the cheese from the mousetrap, and how to avoid the giant tarantula.

All of which is redeemed by Richard Matheson's screenplay. Matheson wrote many of the most fondly-regarded "Twilight Zone" episodes, though among genre cultists these days he's best known for his novella "I Am Legend," which was filmed as The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man (and was the uncredited inspiration for many an apocalyptic zombie film). I tend to regard Matheson as the genius who wrote Hell House, one of the creepiest haunted house novels ever written; he wrote the screenplay of the pretty-good 70's adaptation, The Legend of Hell House, which is ripe for a remake by someone other than Jan de Bont. Robert Osborne, introducing The Incredible Shrinking Man, cited Matheson as the guy who wrote What Dreams May Come, to which I reply by throwing a book at the TV. With Shrinking Man, Matheson treats the premise as a post-film noir science fiction film: there's no way out for the shrinking Scott, no cure to be found, and no martyred death, either. That's what makes this a cut above most genre SF films. Scott is forced to adapt to each new size on its own terms, and--as he directly observes in the film's voluminous voice-over narration--each time he shrinks he's forced to grapple with a completely alien world. The entire second half of the film takes place in the basement, as he waits forlornly for his wife to come downstairs, scavenges for food, makes a home out of a matchbox, and then, weak from starvation, struggles to climb toward a piece of cake that sitting abandoned by a window (for some reason). When he shrinks again, he can finally pass through the grate and walk outside into the vast jungle of his backyard--and here the film ends! Poor Scott tries to be an optimist about the whole thing, and the ending narration is optimistic, hopeful: he'll be a pioneer in one new world after the next, and soon the rest of the human race may be joining him, should they continue to experiment with new and strange sciences. The ending is actually very reminiscent of the end of The Time Machine, as Wells thrusts his time traveller ever forward, past the Eloi and the Morlocks into new future worlds, past the end of the human race. But the time traveller does so willingly. Scott has no choice, and will soon be exploring among the microcosmic.

Perhaps I've been watching too much film noir lately, but it all seemed very noirish, from the voice-over narration to the forlorn outcast walking past the nighttime carnival (think Nightmare Alley) to the despair of finally being cornered by one's Fate, and resigning oneself to the end. But, of course, he doesn't end. The final line is remarkable, because it is, at once, hopeful and terrifying: "I still exist!"



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