Saturday, 9 April 2011

The Incredible Shrinking Man

41. The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
Dir: Jack Arnold


The Sci-Fi boom of the 1950s is often looked back on with a smirk and a shrug. In the context of the huge, complex beast that Sci-Fi cinema has become, these early classics of the genre are generally considered a bit camp, their special effects dated and their chin-stroking dialogue laughable. But I love these films considerably more than the often dull, convoluted or self-consciously cool Sci-Fis of recent years. And I don't mean I love them in a patronising, ironic way either. These little B-Movies, usually no longer than 80 minutes in length, are crammed with so much invention, intelligence and excitement that only the laziest of viewers would write them off based on some out-of-era-context special effects and over-earnest acting.

'The Incredible Shrinking Man' is one of the finest examples of the genre while also epitomising everything that people so readily mock about these films. It has a sensationalist title, some over-dramatic acting, very dated special effects and an inherently silly concept. Ultimately, this is all part of its charm but it's important to not make the common mistake of thinking its charm solely stems from its limitations. Because 'The Incredible Shrinking Man' also boasts an intelligent, multi-layered script, thrilling action set-pieces and cheap but effective visual tricks which are a triumph of imagination over financial considerations.

In keeping with the 1950s fascination with things changing size, 'The Incredible Shrinking Man' tells the story of Scott Carey (Grant Williams), a businessman who gets caught in a mysterious mist and subsequently finds himself gradually shrinking. At first his change in size is almost unnoticable but soon he is the size of a child and getting smaller every day. Scott's public humiliation at becoming a famous national curiosity and the detrimental effect this has on his marriage are all issues that have to be put on hold when he accidentally falls into the basement, where he must survive against hunger, loneliness and a giant eight-legged menace that lurks in the shadows.

'The Incredible Shrinking Man' manages to explore its concept from many angles in the space of its 81 minutes. The first two fifths of the film are an emotionally involving drama, as Scott attempts to fight off, and then come to terms with, his affliction. Famed Sci-Fi author Richard Matheson (who wrote many of the best episodes of 'The Twilight Zone' (1959-1964)) has written an extraordinary script which combats the audience's undeniable urge to laugh at its concept by drawing out the genuinely nightmarish nature of Scott's predicament. Matheson portrays the shrinking process as a sort of emasculation as Scott loses the ability to relate to or provide for his wife, ultimately forced to sell his story to the media in order to make some money. During these early stages of the film, Matheson examines the situation in which he has placed his characters from several standpoints. The film starts out as a medical drama reminiscent of Nicholas Ray's 'Bigger Than Life' (1956) but quickly becomes a domestic drama as Scott deals with the implications his shrinking has on his marriage. Economic problems are considered and Matheson even squeezes in a red-herring romantic subplot which is aborted after only a couple of scenes when more pressing issues come to light.

While it's almost impossible not to snigger a little at the sight of a man growing smaller (especially in the awkwardly staged scenes in which he talks to his wife but, due to the primitive effects, the actors pretty much look past each other), 'The Incredible Shrinking Man' sure doesn't acknowledge its potential ridiculousness. Everything is played dead straight and the result is a genuine empathy for the terrifyingly unstoppable situation Scott finds himself in. But Matheson's cleverly structured script is only setting up our emotional connection with this man in order to raise the stakes for the film's phenomenally entertaining final three fifths. At about the half-hour mark, Scott (now only inches tall and living in a doll's house) is chased by his own cat (played by Orangey the cat, a feline actor who also starred in 1955's Sci-Fi landmark 'This Island Earth') and, in evading the monstrous moggy, accidentally falls into the basement of his house. This is no longer just the basement to Scott, however. It is now a vast and frightening world which he must navigate with extreme caution.

It is in this latter part of the film that 'The Incredible Shrinking Man' really takes off. Although the battle with the cat features the most conspicuously dated effects in the movie, it triggers the lengthy basement sequence in which the effects are disarmingly convincing if you surrender to the world the filmmakers have created. Accompanied by an ongoing voiceover monologue, Scott's adventures in the basement resemble a desert island castaway story as he uses the resources available to him to survive. From hereon in, 'The Incredible Shrinking Man' is virtually a one man film but the presence of director Jack Arnold is constantly apparent in the visual invention and thrilling pace. Scott tangles with mouse-traps that would previously have only given him a nasty nip but could now slice him in two. He must leap caverns that were formerly mere cracks and fight to the death against monsters that his old-self would likely have put paid to with a rolled up magazine. Arnold makes this diminutive universe come to life with the simplest of visual tricks. A gigantic, persistent raindrop, for instance, was brought to life by dropping water-filled condoms. The result is one of the film's most enduring images.

Jack Arnold was also responsible for the film's celebrated closing monologue, one of the most memorable and unexpected climaxes in Sci-Fi history. Without giving anything away, this final monologue pushes the film into the metaphysical and recasts the themes of Matheson's script in an even more intellectually-engaging light. It's an unforgettable denouement and it elevates further a film that has already achieved its own kind of greatness. As is the case with all the best 50s Sci-Fis, you go away from 'The Incredible Shrinking Man' with far more to think about than you would expect from a movie with such a title. It more than delivers on the action you would expect but Matheson and Arnold have admirably reached for something more and the result is a film with a dark tone and philosophical bent which may come as a surprise to viewers who would hastily write off this genre as camp, lightweight entertainment.

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