Thursday 8 November 2012

1,001 Films: "The Incredible Shrinking Man" (1957)

The Incredible Shrinking Man remains one of the few Richard Matheson adaptations Hollywood has got right (probably as the writer adapted it himself), and an abiding B-movie of the Atomic Age. Blond, bland Everyman Scott Carey (Grant Williams) is irradiated by what looks suspiciously like a fallout cloud while sunbathing aboard his boat. Rather than develop immediate superpowers, he suffers deleterious effects over the longer term: it's only six months later that he finds his trousers are getting too big for him, and that he's slipped from 6'1" to 5'11", the beginnings of a descent to the very bottom of the food chain. 

Any contemporary remake would set about this premise with the obvious CGI and camera trickery, and append a making-of feature on the DVD to let further light in on the magic. Part of the fun here is guessing exactly how they did individual sequences, whether (as I presume) having Williams sit on a doctor's sofa with no cushions, so as to make him suddenly appear shorter than the actress playing his wife sitting next to him, or having him stand before a screen on which an image of his leading lady has been projected, or simply ushering him onto some of the best (and cleverest) designed sets of the period, brimming over with sight and scale gags that perfectly support Matheson's gift for turning the smallest diversion - such as the now-diminutive Carey's attempts to climb up an empty crate - into a properly epic quest.

Encoded in the hero's voiceover are the (male) writer's true concerns about loss of stature. Carey's wedding ring drops limply off his finger, and the shrinkage means he can no longer satisfy his wife in the way he would like; cast out of first his actual home, and then a doll's house, he will eventually wind up being dumped, altogether unceremoniously, in the bin. It's as psychologically revealing as any of the women's pictures of the preceding decade (Spellbound, The Snake Pit, Secret Beyond the Door), but also has a scene in which the hero is stalked by a cat (more pussy problems?), and a really good, suspenseful bit with a mousetrap. Of course, Honey I Shrunk the Kids was to do it bigger and more expensively as a Disney flick three decades later, but this version retains a potent social message: that nukes, like massive, shiny-tipped cigarettes, can stunt your growth, and the growth of your society. Way more fun and exciting a lesson than one might have got from a straightforward message-movie like On the Beach.

The Incredible Shrinking Man is available on DVD through Universal Pictures.

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