Written by John Hartl in 2011, reposted in conjunction with 2023 SIFF showing of the film in tribute to the legacy of Hartl.
The Incredible Shrinking Man screens at the Egyptian at 1:30 pm on Sunday, May 14.
It’s always gratifying when a favorite film is discovered—or rediscovered in a way that creates a fresh perspective .
Such is the case with 1957’s The Incredible Shrinking Man, which was enthusiastically received in its time but continues to grow in stature. Last year, it joined the National Film Registry of significant American films. In late August, it will be released by Universal as a single-disc DVD.
The latest reappraisal may have begun in 2005, when Time magazine’s Richard Corliss and Richard Schickel listed it as a top guilty pleasure and proposed that “it is long past time for a cult to form around its director, the late Jack Arnold, an efficient maker of B-pictures.” While similar 1950s films dealt with insects turning into monsters because of nuclear misadventures, Time pointed out that “this radical variation on that theme was (especially if you are a kid, eager to grow up, not down) scarier and more profound than the competitors.” Around the same time, Steven Spielberg, in a Turner Classic Movies special called Watch the Skies, singled out the film’s “message about not outer space but inner space, and about the soul and where does the soul go, and what is infinity? Is infinity out there or is infinity in here?”
Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide had always given three out of four stars to The Incredible Shrinking Man. But recently Maltin added half a star and included a mostly new write-up: “Intelligent, serious approach, exceptional special effects for the period, and a vigorous leading performance (by Grant Williams) result in a genuine sci-fi classic, unsurpassed by later attempts.”
For years, the movie had been carried on DVD by only one chain (Best Buy), which included it in a couple of DVD collections of 1950s sci-fi movies, some of them directed by Arnold. Even the new disc will apparently be a bare bones release. Surely a Criterion release is in order.
Based on Richard Matheson’s 1956 novel, The Shrinking Man, Arnold’s film takes place in two worlds: a bland above-ground suburban America inhabited by a married couple (Grant Williams, Randy Stuart) and a magical/nightmarish basement where Williams’ shrinking character, Scott Carey, is physically and mentally transformed by a mixture of radiation poisoning and insecticide. “Scott Carey has a shape and a size and a way of thinking,” he tells his wife. “All that’s changing now.” Soon he will turn into a miniature Robinson Crusoe in his own cellar, escaping the family cat and battling a ferocious spider before literally reaching for the stars.
When I first saw the film in the fall of 1957, Sputnik had just been launched, science fairs were becoming popular and science-fiction suddenly didn’t seem so strange and, well, otherworldly. My seventh-grade pals in Quincy, WA, formed an “astronomer’s club,” though we never went as far as the rocket-launching boys in October Sky.
Like Forbidden Planet (released one year before Sputnik) and The Time Machine (1960), Shrinking Man seemed to tap into a feeling that the world had forever changed—that much was now possible that had seemed unimaginable.
What’s most remarkable about the film today is how personal it feels. In her early-1960s essay, “The Imagination of Disaster,” the late Susan Sontag pointed out that Arnold’s movie an exception to the rule that in science-fiction films “we are rarely inside anyone’s feelings.” That’s partly because the director brought a great deal of himself to the script. Arnold was drawn to Matheson’s book (and screenplay) because of the technical challenge it presented. But he also wanted to put his own philosophical stamp on the story, rewriting Matheson’s finale and creating a daring, hard-to-describe ending that still invites strong reactions. “That existence begins and ends is man’s conception, not nature’s,” says Carey as swirling images of the universe fill the screen.
At some point while the film was in production, Arnold decided to create a metaphysical ending. Neither the studio nor Matheson wanted it that way, but in the end Arnold prevailed. “It was based on my own personal religious feelings, my ideas about God and the universe,” Arnold said in the early 1980s. “The studio wanted a happy ending, with the doctors finding a serum to rescue him from shrinking. I refused to do it.”
Universal executives trusted him, and the first preview went so well they decided to release it with his ending. “It shocked a lot of people, and there are some who still don’t like it,” said Arnold. “They felt it came out of left field, but many liked its poetry.” The late film historian, Leslie Halliwell, called the picture “horrifyingly inevitable.” Peter John Dyer wrote that “it opens up new vistas of cosmic terror.”
In retrospect, the ending seems to look forward to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), with its series of question marks about the future of one man who may represent mankind (Scott Carey asks “Was I the man of the future?”; David Bowman in 2001 is reborn as a star child). Jurgen Muller’s lavishly illustrated book, Movies of the 50s, recently described Shrinking Man as “an allegory about the alienation of modern man. Here, chance incidents effortlessly send ivory-tower concepts like private property and financial security tumbling down, leaving the cornerstones of society in ruins.”
Arnold made the film at Universal, where Douglas Sirk was also creating a series of dramas suggesting the instability of middle-class life. In Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows and There’s Always Tomorrow (both 1955), the central characters are nearly suffocated by conformist values that are hinted at in the above-ground scenes in Shrinking Man. In There’s Always Tomorrow, Fred MacMurray plays a toy manufacturer whose robot creation becomes a kind of alter ego. In All That Heaven Allows, the widowed Jane Wyman is given a television set to encourage her to end an affair with her gardener. Their false sense of security is shattered, as surely as Scott Carey’s is.
Albert Zugsmith, Shrinking Man’s producer, also took a producing credit on Sirk’s most delirious project, Written On the Wind (1956), which featured Grant Williams in a supporting role. But while Sirk openly flirts with suburban satire, Arnold and Matheson do so in a more deadpan manner. Carey’s baffled doctors flirt with the obvious when they inform him that he’s shrinking because of a gradual loss of nitrogen and calcium. At one point a rusty can of paint seems to comment on the action, advising to “use less for best results.”
More deliberate attempts to locate the material’s comic potential have mostly failed. Lily Tomlin’s The Incredible Shrinking Woman was an embarrassment, though HBO’s Dream On series found a way to insert Carey’s dilemma into one of the sitcom’s more existential storylines. For half a century, headline writers hungry for a wry touch have effectively combined “incredible” and “shrinking.”
Arnold’s dark sense of humor surfaces in a sequence in which Carey visits a carnival, where a barker loudly promotes the deformities of nature inside. Carey befriends a midget, confiding to her that he sometimes feels that the rest of the world is out of step with him—which may be the turning point in his lonely consciousness-expansion. There are other moments, like Carey’s sudden awareness that he is becoming shorter than the girl, that suggest there is no turning back. And do you laugh or gasp (or both) at the scene in which Carey’s wedding ring falls off—just after his wife has assured him that she will stay with him as long as he is wearing it?
Joseph Gershenson’s music provides a vital transition between the script’s ironic and heroic moments, and it gradually takes over the soundtrack in the basement sequences. After a water heater fails and floods Carey’s matchbox home, and he battles a spider for food, the score loses its tension and begins to prepare us for a philosophical finale. Struck by a sudden epiphany—that “the unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet, like the closing of a gigantic circle”—Carey finds himself melting away, “becoming nothing,” yet his last words are “I still exist.” Geoff Andrew, who called the picture “a pulp masterpiece” in Time Out magazine, praised “the film’s philosophical core: a moving, strangely pantheist assertion of what it really means to be alive.”
Matheson’s book has an abrupt ending (the last line: “Scott Carey ran into his new world, searching”) that’s much less enthralling. He disliked Arnold’s ending when he saw the movie in 1957, but eventually saw the picture again and claimed that “for the first time I had seen the value of it . . . I appreciate it more all the time.”
Over the years, I’ve found that people who resist Arnold’s movie usually object to its sometimes florid narration or they claim that the ending comes out of nowhere. The language can be off-putting at times (“ecstasy of elation” is a bit much), but in retrospect the conclusion seems as inevitable as Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ famous five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Scott Carey touches on them all.
Albert Einstein, who died two years before The Incredible Shrinking Man was released, might have approved of its intentions. “The most beautiful and most profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical,” he once wrote. “It is the sower of all true science.”
EDITOR NOTE: It has since been given the Criterion Collection treatment. Just as Hartl wished.
Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
The Incredible Shrinking Man (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
The Incredible Shrinking Man (The Criterion Collection) [DVD]
The Incredible Shrinking Man (Universal) [DVD]
The Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection [DVD]