By 1957, “B” film director Jack Arnold had already made some of the finest sci-fi films of the decade; “It Came from Outer Space,” “The Creature from the Black Lagoon,” and “Tarantula,” but the best was yet to come, 1957’s “The Incredible Shrinking Man.” Ignore the silly title this is one of the greatest existential science fiction films ever made. The 1950’s would turn out to be Arnold’s best decade. With the dawn of the 1960’s most of his career sadly, would be in television with only an occasional foray back into film.
We meet Scott Carey (Grant Williams) and his wife Louise (Randy Stuart), sunbathing on their small boat. It’s a beautiful day and the couple are playfully content soaking in the tranquility of the time spent together. When Louise goes down below to get a bottle of beer, Scott suddenly finds himself coming face to face with a bizarre, threatening cloudy haze that quickly falls upon him and then disappears just as quickly into the distance. After Louise returns she notices shiny specks have landed on his chest. They think nothing of it and soon it is forgotten. A short time later he is also accidently sprayed by some insecticide.
A week of so later at home, Scott notices his clothes seem a bit too big. He wonders out loud if the dry cleaner gave back the wrong shirt. Louise points out that can’t be as his initials are right there embroidered on the shirt. Other signs begin to appear and both Scott and Louise realize something strange is going on.
A meeting with his physician brings no reassurance. His once comfortable middle class life style is suddenly crumbling before him. He begins to feel alienated. When Louise promises to stick by him no matter what, Scott is consoled for the moment, but then unexpectedly, an omen, his wedding ring slides off his finger.
Medical intervention does provide a brief halt in his deterioration enough for him to meet some little people, performers in a circus. For the moment, this gives Scott some comfort; he feels he is not alone, but the calm is short lived.
We next see Scott back at his house. At least that is what we the audience are led to believe. For the moment, everything seems like it is back to normal as Scott moves about the house, but we soon discover he has continued to shrink. What we thought was his home is really a doll house. This is where he now lives.
The film is based on Richard Matheson’s novel, “The Shrinking Man.” Matheson has stated his inspiration came from a scene while watching the 1953 film, “Let’s Do it Again,” a remake of Leo McCarey’s classic screwball comedy, “The Awful Truth.” In the remake, an upset Ray Milland, leaves Jane Wyman’s apartment grabbing Aldo Ray’s hat by mistake. The hat turns out to be way too big for Milland’s head! Watching this, Matheson began to ask himself, what would really happen if that occurred with one’s own hat?
On the surface, the film is just plain fun to watch, but it does carry some serious underlying themes. Scott sees his shrinkage as a loss of his masculinity. As he continues to shrink, he feels his manhood and his place as the man of the house are being diminished as well. The ‘shrinking’ man is no longer sexually adequate. Scott also faces a life where everyday objects he never felt vulnerable to are now life threatening. A spider he once would have stepped on is now the size of a prehistoric monster. The pet cat is a predatory beast ready to attack. Small leaks from the basement water heater have turned into a major flood for our minuscule hero. He hates being a scientific experiment and a spectacle for the media. He is no longer the everyday 1950’s image of the middle class, white picket fenced American man. Instead, he now fights for survival in his own house where everyday objects are now the enemy to his existence. Finally, he must face the biggest question of all. If he continues to shrink, will he eventually even exist?
The film is well directed by Jack Arnold (“The Creature From the Black Lagoon,” “The Tattered Dress,” “High School Confidential”) with adept performances by Grant Williams and Randy Stuart. The special effects were above average for the period adding to the film’s enjoyment. As always with Hollywood, financial success breathes imitation. Following in the film’s footsteps were three films that went in the other direction. Quickly following up the “Shrinking Man’s” success at the box office was Bert I. Gordon’s “The Amazing Colossal Man” released the same year. In 1958, came “Attack of the 50 Foot Woman” with Allison Hayes, and in 1959 even Lou Costello, in his only film without partner Bud Abbott, made a tepid comedy about a goofy inventor whose girlfriend (Dorothy Provine) turns into the “30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock.” This was Costello’s last film; he died prior to its release. In 1981, Lily Tomlin starred in a odd remake called “The Incredible Shrinking Woman.” The film is a fantasy/comedy that takes the same premise but goes off in a different direction.
A word about the four legged furry feline star of the film. The cat’s name is Orangey and is without a doubt the most prolific cat actor in film. Orangey appeared in seven films beginning with “Rhubarb” in 1951. He also appeared in “This Island Earth” and “The Comedy of Terrors.” His most famous role though was in Blake Edwards’s 1960 film, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Orangey is the only cat to be a two time recipient of the Patsy Award (Picture Animal Top Star of the Year Award). The film itself won the first HUGO Award for Best Dramatic Presentation.
Like a fine wine, “The Incredible Shrinking Man” gets better with age. Along with Don Siegel’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” this just may be the best of 50’s sci-fi!