THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, 1957
Director: Jack Arnold
Starring: Grant Williams, Randy Stuart, April Kent, Helene Marshall
Review by Kevin Johnson
A man is exposed to a freak radiation cloud while on vacation, causing him to gradually shrink.
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I was actually rather surprised by The Incredible Shrinking Man, which began typically like the average B-film but dovetailed into a dark yet intrinsic inspirational tale without the classic Hollywood revisioning. It is a film that espouses more novel or short story-like elements than cinematic ones.
Since this is based on Richard Matheson’s novel of the same name, and since he also penned the screenplay, it’s to be expected. But the lack of specific changes to make the film more engaging to audiences, such as happier ending and a satisfying explanation of the shrinking, is rather audacious, especially taking in account the time period. This gives the film a deeper resonance now, but I can’t imagine audiences being too receptive to it back in 1957.
When a happily-married couple is vacationing on a boat by themselves, the husband (a overly-dashing Grant Williams) is exposed to a random radiation cloud, causing him to shrink daily. He and his wife hold out hope that a cure will be found in time, but Williams soon becomes a celebrity freak show, and then, a miniscule prisoner in his own basement.
Williams’s size changes are accomplished by a judicious use of large props, camera angles, and efficient editing. I was rather impressed by the accuracy and details of the oversized household goods, and crafty camera work is a long dead art, replaced by CGI and green-screens. Which is why I was disappointed with the use of projections in some scenes; but, to be fair, they were used for the more complex scenes, such as when Williams battles the spider.
The sets rival that of some modern-day films, most notably Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Both movies exercise a swath of campy elements, but Honey, I Shrunk the Kids mixed its miniscule fear with a childlike wonder; The Incredible Shrinking Man strove for a more overly-serious, overly-dramatic venture into the undersized unknown. It does get rather ridiculous, with Williams narration over his predicament delving into bad epic poetry, and one can’t help but notice how grim he gets within five minutes of his situation. Considering man can go a few weeks without food, did he REALLY need to go through hell-and-high-water to reach a cake? And, really, was the spider THAT much of a threat?
Prior to this, reaching his three-foot stature made him an object of the media, a spectacle for prying eyes and curious voyeurs. His inability to handle such attention is remedied, at least for a while, when he meets the most beautiful midget in the whole world! No, it’s a generic Hollywood pretty face clambering over the same oversized props at our protagonist. Needless to say, it is somewhat uncomfortable watching such an obvious misrepresentation of the life (and physicality) of a small person, but the 50s didn’t care too much in the way of political correctness – except for the Hayes code, which seemed to discourage a budding romantic relationship between Grant and the “midget.” After all, we wouldn’t want to showcase something as evil as sympathetic adultery, now would we?
Shrinking Man works its strongest points as a polemic, at the points where the narrator and leading man discuss the emotional and spiritual toll the incident is taking on him. And, again, it pushes way too much into the over-dramatic, but in a way, it works, especially when he comes to the realization that his shrinking will not stop. After losing his wife, livelihood, and even his identity, he avoids certain madness with a casual, cool, and serene acceptance of his fate, of acknowledging God’s role in all this, in his gradual decent into the atomic, which, in some metaphysical circles, reflect the very nature of the elliptical universe itself. By becoming small, he becomes large. By dwindling into nothing, he becomes part of everything. (The speech at the end spouts it better than I do.)
The Incredible Shrinking Man certainly over-dramatize its story and over-sexualizes its characters; from the swimsuit-clad wife at the beginning, to the attractive circus midget in the middle, and to the Amazonian garb Williams somehow sports when stalking his basement-jungle, the movie does little to present any problems with showcasing perfect bodies. But the technological aspects of the film are well done, and its novelistic readings are impressive. While the latter may be better served in book format, it was still brave to fit such deep, dark overtones in the film. That’s something on which The Incredible Shrinking Man should be commended.