Scott Carey (Grant Williams) discovers that size does matter in The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
In the wake of Roswell and Hiroshima the 1950's were inundated with paranoid sci-fi pictures, foretelling the dangers of nuclear armament and fearing the demise of humanity at the drop of the atomic bomb. Cinema embraced these fears in a series of genre films, the best of which were helmed by Jack Arnold, a student of pioneering documentarian Robert Flaherty (Nanook Of The North, 1922). But The Incredible Shrinking Man, an exciting and often terrifying picture, is concerned with much broader themes than warfare - machismo and existentialism, for example. Sure, Scott (Grant Williams) is exposed to a radiation cloud, the source of his shrinkage, but this is a mere plot device used to propel our protagonist into a nihilistic basement of terrors, wherein he confronts the very foundations of his humanity. In a film like Tarantula (Arnold, 1955) the creature was birthed by scientific tinkering; it was our experimentation which accelerated the growth of the titular arachnid, which then unleashed carnivorous terror on an unsuspecting town. The tarantula in The Incredible Shrinking Man is ordinarily sized, but a giant to our inches-high protagonist; his dilemma is internal, and atomic concerns are not at the forefront of debate. Rather the film is about the power struggle of a marriage in 50's suburbia, the upholding of masculinity and the place of the individual in God's expansive universe.
Not that you can't enjoy Arnold's masterpiece as just a straight-up genre piece; it's thrillingly paced and hugely exciting, especially in that final battle of wits with the gruesome tarantula (although I still don't know why one would be living in the Carey's basement). I'm an admitted arachnophobic, so obviously these scenes will scare me - but Arnold's camera really fights tooth and nail with the beast, getting in for close-ups on its slimy fangs and spindly legs. A towering presence over our protagonist, its entrance literally made me recoil in terror - a feat even my favorite horror movies have failed to achieve. But it's also scary because The Incredible Shrinking Man takes time to build character and probe psychology. The way Arnold and screenwriter Richard Matheson evoke fear through simple day-to-day acts is wonderful; Scott first notices his shrinkage when getting dressed - his trousers are loose and his shirt baggy. Slowly he notices a difference in height between him and his wife, and this alters the dynamic of their marriage. This is where the film becomes about a power struggle. Wife Louise (Randy Stuart) is always supportive of her husband but she soon becomes dominant of the environment. Their home is idyllically framed and Scott is clearly the breadwinner until he is confined, through shame, and the house becomes like a prison. On the instance that he leaves the house he passes by a carnival (reminiscent of Freaks, Browning, 1932) where he meets a midget named Clarice (April Kent) who is kind and gives him advice. Louise's dominance has driven Scott into the arms of another woman whom he can share his plight with, and perhaps ultimately dominate, as it becomes clear that they are falling for each others charms. It's a subtextual reading that doesn't necessarily exist in the film, but is certainly suggested and makes for fascinating viewing.
But the film really comes alive in its final third, when Scott is forced to live in a dolls house and is attacked by the house cat. This is another stroke of genuis by Arnold who, instead of pushing our protagonist into the struggles of the outside world, converts every household item into a potential danger - the cat he once controlled is now ten times his size; even the mousetrap he encounters would make mincemeat of him. The hunter has become the hunted, an idea best exemplified by that terrifying arachnid. Scott eventually becomes trapped in the basement. Drops of water (filled condoms) are like capsular oceans, a matchbox provides suitable bedding and a nail, when attached to thin cotton, becomes ideal equipment for creating a grappling hook. It's Scott's utilization of a barren and dwarfing landscape which elicits so much terror - he's literally alone, confined to a place where he is doomed to grow ever smaller until he no longer exists at all. You can almost see it as a prehistoric story - the caveman surviving against a dark backdrop of monsters; there's even a scene where he discovers fire, and the way the tarantula dominates the environment, due to its size, recalls the way dinosaurs used to dominate man. It's another fascinating reading, and one which makes the action even more interesting. So The Incredible Shrinking Man is witty, intelligent and exciting, but its most rewarding moment comes in its denouement. Finally able to slip through the bars of confinement into the jungle which once was a garden (out of the frying pan and into the fire if you ask me) Scott's narration ponders the place of man in the universe...
"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!"
As the shot pulls out we see how little Scott has become. Eventually the shot moves past the stars, past the planets and into the deepest regions of our galaxy. That's a bold place for such a small film to go, but it dared to and reaped the rewards; The Incredible Shrinking Man is a masterpiece of 1950's cinema - not so much paranoid as perplexed, asking questions and seeking answers, and in reaching for the stars it achieves a timelessness. The fears present here still exist today...
The Incredible Shrinking Man is part of the Aurum Sci-Fi Quest.