The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) is a science fiction film directed by Jack Arnold based on Richard Matheson's 1956 novel The Shrinking Man. The film stars Grant Williams as Scott and Randy Stuart as Scott's wife Louise. 

Not a film noir, The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) is a noir era view of paranoia, and while classic era noir offers style, theme and technique to both horror and science fiction, The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) is also a great period exploration of masculinity —  or in fact it's an exploration of masculinity for all time.

Best appreciated for the complex and brilliant effects, The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) is one of the decade's major artworks. 

It doesn't seem to get respect but yet it offers unique strains or paranoia, unique shocks, and unique sadness. It wasn’t a huge hit, and took a few re-releases to make a profit.  There are no stars in it and the lead, Grant Williams, went straight from this film to a decades-long television career playing bit parts in episodes of The Munsters, Bonanza, and Perry Mason.

The director, Jack Arnold, was famous for 50’s science fiction movies, with several hits like It Came From Outer Space, Creature From The Black Lagoon and Tarantula.

Psychologically The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) rings with everyone quite uniquely, because it portrays being little in a big world. The doll's house, and the fascinating furniture which gets bigger and bigger, are among cinema's best effects moments.

The story is rapid, as is Scott Carey's descent, descent being a major male theme in classic film noir. Scott in fact is a lousy husband, out of control of his lousiness. It's not even medical, Scott's decline and descent and diminution is just fatality, well beyond reason or control. That could not be more noir, perhaps it is an eternal patriarchal, domestic fear. Because The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) only works as it does, because it takes place in the great location of 1950s America — the home.

Nuclear threat at home of course becomes this classic, and is the real and concelaed setting of this classic. Unlike classic film noir, The Incredible Shrinking Man enjoys light tonalities, of course high and low angles, and the brightness of domesticity,

The nuclear threat as. The only connection is that it's a cloud of radioactivity which drifts over Scott on the boat. Radiation, once again, is the bringer of doom. Perhaps reflecting the anxiety of the day, the doom just happens to randomly affect the main character as an innocent civilian just trying to live a happy life.

This is the regular happy life that Scott loses. He becomes estranged from his wife and brother, because of his size. Even the family pet becomes his worst enemy. He seeks love anew with his lovely wife but she does not want a small man, cannot see him. He becomes estranged even from the desperate process of winning her back, until in his own basement, he's a castaway, scraping to survive, living by himself on his wits in a hostile world — once more not a vibe uncommon to film noir.

Scott's old world of his job and wife Louise comes to a symbolic end when he becomes too small to be seen and heard, and Louise, thinking that he is dead moves out of their house. Scott is being swept along the basement floor by the flood from his broken water heater and he's shouting to be heard, but he can't be heard. She and Charlie walk up the stairs Scott cannot climb, from a symbolic hell where he lives, the basement of the world and the lowest you can go.

Scott clings to a wooden pencil floating by and we journey with him as he finds new lows. The water drains away and is symbolic of his hopes and former world. 

At the end of the feature Scott is in fact free of fate however, and has killed the spider, his symbolic and physical antagonist, emerging as a hero in his new world, a hero alone, and a hero to himself. Scott reflects on his fate and the universe and best of all he's no longer afraid or even angry. 

Looking skyward he says:

"The universe, God's silver tapestry spread across the night. And in that moment I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. I had thought in terms of man's own limited dimension. I had presumed upon nature. That existence begins and ends, is man's conception, not nature's, and I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away, and in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation. It had to mean something. And then I meant something too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist."

This is a message existentially suited to sci-fi although redolent of classic film noir paranoia. The wandering mystery cloud of radioactive mist in the ocean that sparks the shrinking process of an ordinary man named Scott Carey  is never explained except in the most vague, and barely-scientific terms. 

It should not matter. The cloud's randomness and mystery just suggests that this predicament is universal, and that it could happen to anyone, and that this man is only one of many among potential endless waves of victims of human progress.

Film noir not only explores paranoia, but Scott Carey's increasing impotence and his loss of the general signifiers of manly accomplishment are powerfully evident. His initial miniaturisation merely makes him comical in his clothes, but soon he becomes distant from his wife Louise (Randy Stuart), as his child's body size forces the impossibility of sexual contact, making their relationship bizarre. 

There is a short term possibility of a different kind of new normal as Scott Carey encounters a midget woman (April Kent — not an actual midget of course — but a woman shrunk by optical printing and other tricks, just as Williams is.

Scott Carey's shrinking accelerates as fast as his hope dissolves, and soon he's living in a dollhouse, divorced from the ordinary. What is amazingly fun and horrific about this is that he becomes a fearsome allegory for the failure or reversal of human progress, a powerful thought in the 1950s. 

Worse perhaps, and only possible in science fiction of this apocalyptic sort, The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) is a seriously backfired world of science and discovery in which the consequences of modernity send us flat into the past to a point zero. Scott Carey is forced again and again to start his life anew, a bizarre and unique challenge. Again and again he goes to ground zero, and has to adjust to his new circumstances, figuring out how to survive in each new aspect or environment he reaches through as he shrinks. 

Paranoid with utter reason and paralysed by fate, Scott Carey loses his attachment to the modern world of American progress, becoming like a caveman, creating makeshift shelter, building tools and weapons in order to navigate each new universe. The markers of the great USA that formerly drove his life and marked its every aspect of his hope and social achievement — success at work and romantic and erotic love with his wife — become irrelevant.

This starts up early early in The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), as early as the scene where Carey, preoccupied with his commencing shrinkage, ignores his wife's question about something that happened at work.

For a movie to be frightening as well as unbearably sad is a unique achievement. Yes there is action and thrills as miniaturised human Scott Carey battles the spider, but in the aftermath, as heard in Scott's existential voiceover as he slips through the grating of the basement window and out into the massive frontier of his backyard, a concluding moment is created as the man is revealed as just a speck in the overgrowth of his own yard.

This image fades next into a cosmos of stars and galaxies, and the view keeps on pulling back and back until even the stars appear small. From this perspective everything is unimportant, and everything has only the smallest of roles within a vast and passionless universe. Scott Carey's situation is not really even unique as it is shared with all of humanity.

You could say that The Incredible Shrinking Man slides along the film noir rails until it elevates to the science fiction subject matter of physical existential exploration, but this still about a man that loses everything. The shrinking into nothingness is the science fiction equivalent of the moral dying of many a film noir sap.

There are so very few feel-good moments in The Incredible Shrinking Man that it traces film noir lines, and the hero does not win, or save anybody, least of all his love.

Like Forbidden Planet and The Time Machine (1960), The Incredible Shrinking Man taps into a more than timely feeling that the world had changed and that things were possible now that were not before. — something technical to provide a scientific descant to the new crimes that were invented over the noir period, such as the notion of corporate crime, or the concept of the movie psychopath.

Unlike anything else from the era, The Incredible Shrinking Man has a surprise metaphysical ending. Neither the studio nor the novel writer and screen writer Richard Matheson wanted it thus, but thankfully Jack Arnold prevailed.

“It was based on my own personal religious feelings, my ideas about God and the universe,” Arnold said in the 1980s. “The studio wanted a happy ending, with the doctors finding a serum to rescue him from shrinking. I refused to do it.”

“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 film historian Leslie Halliwell called the picture “horrifyingly inevitable,” and Peter John Dyer wrote that “it opens up new vistas of cosmic terror.”

Looking back the ending makes more sense every year that passes, and even looks forward to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), with its ongoing and hanging questions about the future of an existentially and physically isolated individual person man who may in some fashion represent mankind.

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