#520) The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

#520) The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

OR “Let’s Get Small”

Directed by Jack Arnold

Written by Richard Matheson and Richard Alan Simmons. Based on the novel “The Shrinking Man” by Matheson.

Class of 2009 

The Plot: While on vacation, Scott Carey (Grant Williams) encounters a mysterious mist on the ocean. Six months later, Scott notices his clothes all seem too big on him. After a few medical examinations, it is determined that this mist, mixed with a pesticide exposure, is causing Scott to shrink at an inhuman rate. Initially supported by his wife Louise (Randy Stuart), Scott becomes more isolated and miserable as he continues to shrink with no clear remedy. After an altercation with his cat, the now three-inch tall Scott ends up trapped in the cellar, fighting such adversaries as a spider, while Louise assumes that he has been killed. Will Scott go on shrinking into the infinite universe of inner space?

Why It Matters: The NFR praises the film’s “intelligent script and imaginative special effects”, as well as Jack Arnold’s “sparse” direction. There’s also an informative essay by film Professor Barry Keith Grant.

But Does It Really?: Oh sure. “The Incredible Shrinking Man” is not the first ’50s sci-fi film that comes to mind, but the shrinking/growing subgenre definitely got a boost from this movie, even if people don’t know they’re referencing this film directly. “Shrinking Man” continues to hold up thanks to a good script, committed performances, and some genuinely impressive special effects. A pass for “The Incredible Shrinking Man” and its NFR standing.

Everybody Gets One: Director Jack Arnold had helmed a successful run of sci-fi films before “The Incredible Shrinking Man”, including “It Came from Outer Space” and “Creature from the Black Lagoon”. When sci-fi started going out of fashion, Arnold pivoted to other genres, including the Peter Sellers comedy “The Mouse That Roared”. Arnold was also an Oscar nominee for his 1950 documentary “With These Hands” about the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.

Wow, That’s Dated: Besides the typical ’50s suburban elements (the Careys have a milkman), the main dated aspect is a doozy. At one point when Scott is about three feet tall, he befriends Clarice, a little person traveling with the circus. She is referred to as a “midget” and is played by April Kent, a woman who is clearly not a little person. It’s brief, but nevertheless cringe-worthy. My note for this scene was “Oh Christ”.

Seriously, Oscars?: While “The Incredible Shrinking Man” received no Oscar nominations, it did win the very first Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation.

Other notes 

  • Richard Matheson got the idea for “The Shrinking Man” when watching the 1953 comedy “Let’s Do It Again” (a remake of “The Awful Truth”). In one scene, Ray Milland puts on the wrong hat and it sinks down to his ears. Matheson wondered what would happen if Milland had actually shrunk, and inspiration struck. Matheson was able to sell the film rights to Universal prior to the novel’s publication, on the condition that he also write the screenplay. After submitting his screenplay, Universal added the word “Incredible” to the title, and hired Richard Alan Simmons to do re-writes, as well as a major restructuring (the novel was told in flashbacks). Matheson believed that these changes weakened the final film.
  • Wait, this movie is actually good. Grant Williams and Randy Stuart didn’t have much of a career outside of “Incredible Shrinking Man”, but they make a convincing married couple with some obvious chemistry, aided by some smart dialogue from Matheson’s script that treats them as equal partners. Anyone expecting your typical ’50s sci-fi nonsense will be pleasantly surprised.
  • What the hell is in that mist? Glitter? Asbestos?
  • The first doctor Scott goes to is played by William Schallert, aka Poppo from “The Patty Duke Show“. This is one of at least five NFR movies Schallert appears in!
  • Once Scott starts shrinking, you can fully appreciate the film’s special effects. There’s a little bit of everything: forced perspective, optical process shots, scale models, and a special shoutout to Universal’s Giant Props department. It’s rudimentary by today’s standards, but still works. For the record, the 1957 Visual Effects Oscar went to the WWII U-Boat drama “The Enemy Below“. Come on!
  • The nice thing about this movie is that everyone takes it seriously. No winking at the camera or corny “small” jokes (you leave those to me). Like any good sci-fi, everyone plays the situation as if it could really happen.
  • The highlight of the movie is when Scott, now only a few inches tall, is attacked by the family cat. It’s an impressive mix of special effects and still gets the pulse racing over 60 years later. Fun Fact: Butch the cat is played by Orangey, a few years away from his iconic work as “Cat” in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s“.
  • Once Scott ends up in the cellar, the second half becomes what I call the “Cast Away” part of the movie: A man stranded in isolation, fending for himself against the elements, making fire, with a wife who assumes he’s dead. It’s no wonder the first choice for Scott was Dan O’Herlihy, who had received an Oscar nod a few years earlier for playing Robinson Crusoe.
  • Movie fans and arachnid lovers alike are quick to point out that the “spider” that Scott fights in the cellar is clearly a tarantula. Turns out tarantulas are much easier to coordinate than spiders, so the substitution was made without changing the script. Besides the obvious physical differences, tarantulas don’t make webs.
  • I don’t care how big that spider is, you set it free outside instead of killing it.
  • [Spoilers] Despite concerns from studio executives and preview audiences, Richard Matheson and Jack Arnold successfully lobbied to keep the original ending, in which Scott does not return to his original size or reunite with his wife. Instead our hero accepts his fate and…finds religion? “To God, there is no zero. I still exist.” What a weird ending.

Legacy 

  • “The Incredible Shrinking Man” paved the way for a whole slew of size-changing science fiction adventures in film, including “The Amazing Colossal Man”, “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”, and “Little Women”.
  • There have been a few proposed remakes over the years (Eddie Murphy was attached to one in the early 2000s), but so far the only official remake was the Lily Tomlin comedy “The Incredible Shrinking Woman”.
  • Among Richard Matheson’s other writing projects are fellow NFR entry “The House of Usher“, the “Twilight Zone” episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, and the novel “I Am Legend” which spawned the Will Smith movie as well as Charlton Heston’s “The Omega Man”.
  • At the time of his death in 2013, Richard Matheson was working on a new updated adaptation of “The Shrinking Man” with his son Richard Christian Matheson.

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