THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN
The single best science fiction film of the 1950s may even be the single best film of the 1950s, period, and one of the most emotionally resonant motion pictures in the medium's history. Plus: the return of Tamara the Tarantula, because that's the kind of thing you'd expect in a movie billed as the "best" anything.
Directed by Jack Arnold
Written by Richard Matheson and Richard Allan Simmons (based on the novel The Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson)
With Grant Williams (Scott Carey), Randy Stuart (Louise Carey), Paul Langton (Charlie Carey), April Kent (Clarice), Orangey (Butch), and Tamara (an extremely large black widow)
Spoiler alert: high
Despite having forebears in the resizing sub-subgenre, like The Devil Doll and Dr. Cyclops, and despite inspiring a long line of imitators, like Attack of the Puppet People and the unsubtly-titled The Amazing Colossal Man, Jack Arnold's The Incredible Shrinking Man remains as unique a movie as I think I might ever see.
It is a 1950s science fiction film, true. It is a movie about radiation doing something fundamentally ridiculous, also true. But it does something that no 50s SF movie has ever done before, will probably ever do again, isn't supposed to do, maybe even—as a rule—should do. Shrinking Man made me cry.
(And Godzilla and Rodan don't count. They're foreign.)
Ishiro Honda's two most emotional works also only manage those misty feelings in their final minutes. Shrinking Man is a film that, for a man at a certain threshold, is harrowing for almost its entire runtime. (Perhaps he needs to be a man, to obtain this full value; I don't know; I don't think it's a hard prerequisite.)
I suspect the average viewer, however, is to some degree inoculated to its power. Most people with an interest in old-time sci-fi watched it when they were still in short pants. Hell, I thought I did, but something happened when I sat down with my DVD—no HD release for this super-classic, surprise surprise, unless you actually accept an Amazon video feed as HD, in which case you really don't need it. I realized I'd never seen it before, only clips, here and there, usually spider-related. This is the film made famous for its mortal combat with a spider—which may explain why I'd never seen the whole feature—but this sequence, terrifically rendered and thrilling to boot, isn't even close to Shrinking Man's best.
And yet I'm not sure I can entirely recommend watching it for the first time as you approach your 32d birthday.
Scott Carey is a man with a perfect life, as was conceived in the 1950s, and as is still very much conceived today. He's out on a boat in the middle of the ocean with Louise, his adoring wife, whom he loves just as much in return, their six years of marriage nothing but a number. It's this kind of storytelling economy that you don't see much of anymore: in just a few strokes of dialogue, it's made obvious that, in their beautiful stability, in a just world they could stay in love forever. (You could draw some deep, smart-sounding subtextual conclusions from the fact they have no children, but one prefers to believe instead they've simply chosen not to have any, for that makes it a better story; and in the book, anyway, they had a daughter.)
The beautiful is often fragile; stability always an illusion. So it proves. An uncanny cloudbank sweeps the boat, covering Scott in a sparkling coat of radioactive dust. But nothing happens for months, until—as serious men in white coats determine so much later—Scott is again pelted with toxic material, this time a pesticide. The radiation reacts with the chemical, and what their combination does is so hard to believe—indeed, so incredible—that for weeks Scott and Louise deny that it is happening. But it is. Scott is shrinking.
Science springs into action, and they even arrest his disease, giving him a brief moment of newfound stability. He remains, however, uncured. The stress has already resulted in a radically changed man, now the size of a child; his disaffection brings him to the edge of infidelity. But perhaps it would have been for the best—for both husband and wife. Their increasingly dysfunctional marriage is, after all, now all but irrevocably broken by the failure of all the assumptions they'd once cherished.
Then the shrinking starts again, and whatever hopes Scott nurtured are crushed. Ultimately he finds himself living in a house within a house, made for dolls just his size. At his present stature, he is subject not only to the social isolation and psychological torment his new reality has already provided. Now the threat of physical destruction beckons—the cat, larger to him than any tiger in his previous existence, though banished to the outdoors, effects its return in a moment of human error. It almost kills him; what it does is worse.
My cats would never... oh, who am I kidding? Of course they would.
Scott's body survives but only at the cost of a long drop into the basement. His wife and his subtly cruel, unsympathetic brother search, but there is the suggestion they do not search very hard, and his last chance to be found and rescued is lost, as is he, in a great flood. At this moment, a bit more than halfway through, Shrinking Man takes on its final form, a survival film. The prospect of starvation, and even crueler predators, await Scott on the alien planet his own home's basement has become.
The most immediately striking aspect of Shrinking Man is that it looks, with some scattered exceptions, phenomenal. That a Jack Arnold film with special photographer Clifford Stine aboard has excellent effects work is not, of course, a shock; but the level of craft on display here, and more amazingly the sustained nature of it, from two minutes in till the very last shots, is humbling. Art directors Robert Clatworthy and Alexander Golitzen would go on to design Touch of Evil, but they earn immortality with this, rendering increasingly large furniture and objects as Scott shrinks. Costume designers Jay Morley, Martha Bunch, and Rydo Lochak do their jobs, too, with clothes that fit Grant Williams (appropriately terribly) but were clearly made for a child. When splitscreen techniques can be applied, the illusion is made positively absolute.
Occasionally superimpositions, traveling mattes, and rear projection—each ranging from good to crap—must be used instead, and here the film falters. The bimodality that subverted Tarantula, between effects work that's indistinguishable from reality and effects work that is obviously and unapologetically effects work, also subverts Shrinking Man. But it is of such small account, that I only mention it because it is keeping with the film's themes.
It's not just Clifford Stine that looks good here, either. Belatedly, I have realized what it is, visually speaking, that makes a Jack Arnold movie—at least if anything does, besides creepy hands reaching startlingly into the frame, or random nonsense getting thrown at any camera available, whether it's 3D or not. I've said his style is in the main an unassuming one, even an indistinct one. But that's because he adapts his style, with his whole heart, to the contours of each story he tells.
Look upon his works, ye mighty, and maybe you'll learn something. It Came From Outer Space is an eerie, thoughtful picture, so he directs with an eerie, thoughtful style, with many shots of the eerie, thought-provoking desert. Tarantula is a jolly romp about a giant monster, set in the expansive desert, so he opens up to let the menace walk its eight-legged way across the endless vista. No Name on the Bullet is a claustrophobic blend of the Western and the Hitchcockian thriller, so the framing tends toward the tight, the seemingly inescapable. The Glass Web is about how television is awful, so he shows you 3D effects you'd never see on television, and satirizes himself by rubbing your face in how such empty sensationalism can be awful in any medium, before returning to your regularly scheduled program. His segment of This Island Earth is about a Space Jesus, so he goes nuts with pseudo-pieta compositions, even piercing Exeter's right side in the midst of his great sacrifice. The Creature From the Black Lagoon is deeply intrigued by the mysteries of the underwater realm, so he let Scotty Wellbourne direct it instead. And, of course, its sequel Revenge of the Creature is a piece of shit, so Jack Arnold asked, "What would a piece of shit feel like, formally speaking?" and he made his vision of pure effluence erupting across the screen a palpable reality.
The Incredible Shrinking Man is a story about the world becoming strange and oppressive and vaster and more unknowable each day; about a man diminishing until everything he surveys is his enemy; and it is more profound in the depth and breadth of its metaphors than any body horror David Cronenberg himself ever made. The result is almost certainly Arnold's flashiest film, filled with arcane angles and truly distressing compositions, proof he was always capable of "more," but that he believed—and maybe he was right—that less was sometimes even better.
Indeed, as visually distinct as Shrinking Man is, it never threatens to overwhelm the story, until the very end, when overwhelming every sense was the goal. Shrinking Man, like so many of Arnold's other works, remains his screenwriter's film first. Richard Matheson, a novelist of great repute, adapted himself here, though certain production realities forced his hand. For one, the non-linear structure of the novel is lost; I cannot imagine that beginning in the basement is any better at all. Indeed, I cannot imagine it is anything but much worse. But then my favorite part—the most disturbing part—is the first half of the film, when Scott must still deal with humankind, rather than a beast, however deadly and scary it is. Yes, the spider can kill him, but it cannot shame him.
The metaphor of Scott's condition contains multitudes: it can be anything, is everything. It is inadequacy—impotence, invisibility, masculinity all but totally subverted. It is disease—cancer, tuberculosis, AIDS. It is change—looking at a world and realizing with a sudden terror that it is no longer made for you. And it is difference—looking at the world, knowing that it never was.
But Shrinking Man's key reference, I think, is aging—the slow death that will take us no matter what, that comes second by second as an entropy that diminishes us within our own bodies, till finally the worn-out order of our chemical selves collapses, reuniting them with the universe. Aging, too, is the death that leaves us alone to suffer, long before we die.
In a superb trick, then, the existentialist film permits you to make your own meaning out of it. But it can be all of these things because, unlike our latterday self-congratulatory excercises in empty metaphor, it is also irreducibly itself. It is a man shrinking, dealing with his condition in a most literal way, and fighting, for every moment he is able, to maintain himself.
As much as the art directors and special photographer, it's the actors who bring Matheson's frightful universal allegory to life. Grant Williams, who convinces in The Monolith Monsters only that he is an undereducated idiot, is revelatory here, offering a sublime performance as a man whose every illusion is breaking down. Randy Stuart, as a woman locked into trying to persevere under the worst circumstances, is more quietly brilliant; one sees only grief when she believes Scott is dead, but there's a way she reads her lines that flattens, perhaps not out of sadness only, but self-loathing at her own relief.
And let's not forget Tamara!
No, no: not a one of them in this film is poor. Only poorly cast. One can, of course, accept the idea of a tarantula crawling around a suburban basement and standing in for an ordinary spider. (Perhaps "accept" is not the right word.) This is partly because no trained spiders of a species that actually build webs and might occupy that particular ecological niche existed, so it was a necessity; and Tamara is great. (I think they might have hurt her in one of her scenes, and I am deeply conflicted about this, since I like Tamara individually, but, still—spider.)
Tamara, unfortunately, is not the only example of an actress pretending entirely unsuccessfully to be something she is not. I don't even know what to call this—so I'll dub it heightface. April Kent is a most charming young woman, and you settle back into the film soon enough thanks to her heartwarming (and heartbreaking) scenes of spiritual adultery with Scott, but she is egregiously not a little person of any stripe.
"...and then John Agar and I escaped the evil scientist! It was amazing!"
It's a little repulsive, even for a film made in 1957, when we pretend they didn't know better (though they did). Arnold has made excuses since, and they are not quite convincing. It would've been difficult to splitscreen, he said, as if the film weren't bristling with splitscreen. And, hey, he points out, he used the real deal in the rear projection! (Which actively calls attention to how badly the effect isn't working at all, as well as how very mean-minded it all seems.)
You could half-believe him, when the script calls for the two to embrace, but you don't. It's called a body double, Jack. I know you know about them.
The final half is the Williams Show, however—or the Williams and Tamara Power Hour—not unlike a silent film in its construction, the quiet broken almost solely by Scott's narration.
Arnold added the long soliloquy that closes the film. Making up for his lackadaisical, get-it-over-with approach to Revenge of the Creature and then some, he held firm against a studio that wanted a happy ending. Yet he felt that an ending that simply stopped was just too depressing, even for one of the most downbeat science fiction films of not just the 1950s, but—if you consider the matter—of all time.
In both the novel and the film, Scott vanishes into the microcosmos, to inevitably perish: either as food for insects, or by slow starvation, or by a choice between thirsting to death and drowning, as any water he might try to drink beaded around his tiny body and suffocated him. But in the film, Scott speaks through the final, fatal stages of his strange metamorphosis, against a montage of a lawn that has become as tall as the mightiest forest, set against the image of galaxies so distant, they have become small; it is, altogether, a trippy exercise in a film bent toward surrealism already, prefiguring no less than 2001: A Space Odyssey in its evocation of a kind of unknowable transcendence—or perhaps, in Scott's case, immanence is the better word.
But what Kubrick made happen with visuals alone, Arnold puts to something like poetry, and Scott's words are shattering. They are the attempt of a man to reimpose the meaning stolen from him by tragedy. His thoughts turn grandiloquent, and finally mystic: he forces himself to believe, for one last time, in the God that's destroyed him, in the cosmic plan that has gone on without him. For the moment, he exists, and armed with existence alone, he can yet face the end of all things with dignity.
For once the consensus is correct. They might not mean it in quite the same supremely complimentary way, but they are right: The Incredible Shrinking Man really is Jack Arnold's masterpiece.
That which is indistinguishable from magic:
- The scaling problems we discussed in Tarantula go the other way, of course. Scott Carey, once doll-sized, should be able to leap two or three feet in the air, and possess a seemingly disproportionate amount of physical strength, but would have also died shivering long before the ending of the actual movie, which ignores every single bit of this.
- To credit Arnold and Stine's commitment to realism, though, I love the effect of the droplets forming on the bottom of the leaky water heater. I found myself amazed at their verisimilitude and wondered how did they do that..?! Answer: condoms.
- I don't relish the prospect of a Shrinking Man remake, but if there is one facet they could improve upon in a 21st century version, it's a little more sex. I want to see how Scott and Louise try to make it work, before it all collapses into frustration and shame.
- The film opens by Scott cajoling Louise into getting him a beer, but it's done so sweetly (and accomplished by the promise of he doing an even bigger chore later), that it's really only your expectation of finding something wrong with it you're seeing.
- But, of course, the film is a terrific satire of bourgeois values, so bound up in a very specific kind of normalcy, and so much more fragile as a result.
- The final monologue is quite possibly the heaviest thing you'll ever hear.