A surprisingly profound and spiritual science fiction film about the human soul
Typecasting isn't something limited to actors. It most definitely applies to film genres as well, and throughout the history of cinema the science fiction film has generally been thought of by film critics and “serious” filmgoers as a lesser genre. It’s understandable because for years, particularly during the genre’s Golden Age in the 1950s, sci-fi films were almost exclusively B-movies with low-budgets, no movie stars, no impressive sets, no topnotch scripts, and they frequently flaunted cheesy-looking monsters and aliens. But even with these limitations, groundbreaking, imaginative, and highly entertaining sci-fi films were produced and this week’s classic, “The Incredible Shrinking Man”, is one of that decade’s best and most profitable. This surprisingly profound film is as close to being about the human soul as I’ve ever come across in a movie. It is also colossally fun.
It begins with “Robert ‘Scott’ Carey” on vacation with his wife “Louise”, and he unexpectedly finds himself covered in an eerie mist of phosphorescent dust. The dust turns out to be atomic, and later, when inadvertently mixed with other chemicals, “Scott” finds himself getting smaller, because his growth process has been reversed. As he shrinks, the world as he knew it begins to disappear. He becomes so small that his pet cat is now a frightening predator and just trying to get some food becomes a life-threatening ordeal. His existence has become a sheer fight for survival.
While “The Incredible Shrinking Man” touches on fears about the human race destroying itself with chemicals and atom bombs, and also illustrates the 1950’s vibe that masculinity was under attack, it is truly a film about the bigger picture of life – how much or little control we have over it, and our significance (or lack of) within the grand scheme of things. At its heart, it is a human drama about a man having an existential crisis, and it leaves the viewer pondering such metaphysical queries as what is the nature of existence, the importance of all creatures great and small, and if the soul exists, where does it go.
But even with all its spiritual inclinations, “The Incredible Shrinking Man” never forgets it’s a science fiction horror film. And this thrilling and sometimes hair-raising delight is chockfull of surprises, wonderfully spellbinding special effects, and an array of emotions. Just seeing “Scott” dwarfed by his living room furniture, his wife, or cat are enough to mesmerize. “The Incredible Shrinking Man” has it all – adventure, horror, science fiction, drama, camp, humor, and insight – packaged in a stirring metaphor about feeling insignificant and trying to understand our place in the universe.
The film smartly uses a mix of various types of special effects strewn throughout the film, including split screen, rear projection, oversized sets and props (I’ll touch a bit more on the special effects for you to read in the TO READ AFTER VIEWING section so I don’t spoil any of the fun for first-time viewers). Sound also helps create mood and emphasizes otherworldliness from the opening credits with a forlorn trumpet playing a haunting refrain, to the shifting volume and quality of sound of objects and "Scott's" voice.
"The Incredible Shrinking Man" was part of the science fiction film heyday that came in the wake of World War II. Fears of atomic destruction were ever-present, the Cold War was fostering insecurity and mistrust, and the roles of men and women were slowly changing. By the 1950s, a giant wave of sci-fi films emerged that combined science and fiction to expose, exploit, and expound upon these unsettling societal developments and paranoias. During that decade, the science fiction film genre came of age.
Among the hordes of these films came a plentitude of human versus alien movies (classics such as "The Day the Earth Stood Still", "The Thing from Another World", "The War of the Worlds", "It Came from Outer Space", "Forbidden Planet", "Invasion of the Body Snatchers”), and a slew of films in which atomic radiation somehow morphed creatures into giant monsters (classics such as "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms”, “Godzilla", "Them!", and “Tarantula”). There were so many man versus monster/alien movies, that within a decade, sci-fi films had largely become formulaic and repetitive. Then came “The Incredible Shrinking Man”. Instead of outer space it dealt with inner space. Instead of man versus monster, it was man versus himself and his perception of the world. The film's budget fell somewhere between $700,000 and $800,000 and it grossed $1.43 million, becoming one of the most profitable and highest grossing sci-fi films of the 1950s. Not bad for a B-movie.
“The Incredible Shrinking Man” was born in the mind of science fiction horror writer Richard Matheson. While watching Ray Milland try on an oversized hat in the 1953 musical "Let's Do It Again", Matheson got an idea to write a story in which a man's clothes are suddenly too big. It turned into his 1956 science fiction novel, "The Shrinking Man". He sold the film rights to Universal-International Pictures Co. Inc. with the caveat that he write the script (Richard Alan Simmons was hired to make revisions). ”The Incredible Shrinking Man" was Matheson’s very first screenplay.
Richard Matheson had previously written numerous short stories as well as the successful 1954 novel "I Am Legend”. He went on to write countless more short stories and novels, and nearly 100 film and TV scripts, including the screenplays for the film adaptations of several Edgar Allan Poe stories (“House of Usher", "The Pit and the Pendulum", "Tales of Terror”, and "The Raven”), and many of the most famous episodes of the original classic TV series "The Twilight Zone” (including “The Invaders", "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet", and "Nick of Time”). He also wrote the story and screenplay for Steven Spielberg's first TV movie, 1971's "Duel". Matheson was an inspiration to the likes of writers such as Stephen King and Anne Rice, and filmmaker George A. Romero. Richard Matheson died in 2013 at the age of 87.
Universal assigned B-movie director Jack Arnold (under contract to them) to direct "The Incredible Shrinking Man". Considered one of the supreme science fiction film directors of the era, he had already directed several major sci-fi hits for the studio, and his work on “The Incredible Shrinking Man” is no less than sensational. Never milking special effects, he keeps them a natural part of the story and as such, there is a believability to this film. Arnold wastes no time with the film’s pace, and adds depth and amplifies emotion by his choice of visual compositions and even the objects he shows in the frame. A simple example is his use of long shots to show “Scott” running across the living room when in danger. The angles, juxtaposition of sizes and distance completely enhance “Scott’s” tiny size and vulnerability. It’s this kind of invisible directorial work that keeps this film thoroughly gripping from start to finish.
Connecticut born Jack Arnold began as an actor and dancer in New York, and also filmed plays, selling the footage to the actors. In World War II, he enlisted in the military and took a course in cinematography, and after the war made several industrial films. His 1950 documentary "With These Hands” earned him a Best Documentary Feature Academy Award nomination (his only), and with that, he caught the eye of Universal, who offered him a contract. Like actors, when under contract to a studio the studio assigned directors their films, and the first film they gave Arnold was the 1953 B-movie "Girls in the Night”, which did surprisingly well. Because television was rapidly keeping audiences away from movie theaters, 3-D movies were becoming the rage, and Arnold's next directorial project was Universal's first venture into 3-D, the science fiction film "It Came from Outer Space", also in 1953, which was another success (and now a classic). To try and repeat the triumph, Universal gave him another 3-D sci-fi film, "The Creature from the Black Lagoon" in 1954, which would become yet another classic. Arnold was a visual thinker who drew and worked from storyboards for all of his films. He planned and thought out everything before filming began.
By the end of the decade, Jack Arnold established himself as one of filmdom's leading science fiction directors. His other sci-fi classics include "Tarantula", and "Revenge of the Creature". Though best known for sci-fi, Arnold also directed many Westerns, comedies and dramas. His other films include "No Name on the Bullet", “Red Sundown", "Man in the Shadow”, ”High School Confidential!", "The Glass Web", "Lady Takes a Flyer", and "The Mouse that Roared”. Come the 1960s, he turned almost exclusively to television, and by the end of his career had directed nearly ninety films and television shows. He directed over 100 individual episodes for various TV shows, including 15 episodes of “The Brady Bunch”, and produced and directed over 20 episodes of “Gilligan’s Island”. He was married once, for nearly fifty years until his death. Jack Arnold died in 1992 at the age of 79.
In a stirring performance, Grant Williams stars as shrinking man “Robert ‘Scott’ Carey”. Williams has an immense sadness just under the surface, as if “Scott” is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. There is great physicality to his performance as well, as Williams can look like a little boy sitting in a giant chair and later like a gladiator fighting to save his life. The film was physically challenging, and he burned his shoulder, hurt his neck, and went temporally blind during the shoot. “Scott” is in pretty much every scene and alone for most of the second half, so for most of the filming Williams had to act opposite nothing and no one. Quite a challenge for any actor. I’ll explain a bit more when I talk about the special effects after you watch the film. Williams’ sympathetic and likable everyman quality makes his situation that much more heartbreaking and the film that much more intense.
New York City born Grant Williams began acting as a child. After serving in the US Air Force, he returned to New York, studied with famed Method acting teacher Lee Strasberg, performed in the theater, and soon signed a movie contract with Universal Pictures. After appearing in a few TV shows, he made his film debut in the 1956 Western "Red Sundown" directed by Arnold. Arnold cast the blonde actor against type as an evil gunslinger. He continually cast Williams in his films whenever possible, including his next, "Outside the Law". As a contract player, Williams continued to get supporting roles in other Universal films, including Douglas Sirk’s classic "Written on the Wind" in 1956. "The Incredible Shrinking Man" was Williams’ first starring role and remains the film for which he is best remembered. He continued working, but stardom eluded him. According to Arnold, it was because Universal didn't know how to cast him and he was blonde at a time when dark haired actors such as Rock Hudson were the rage. In any case, Williams worked until the early 1970s, amassing 45 film and (mostly) TV credits. Some of his other films include "The Monolith Monsters", "The Couch", "The Leech Woman", "Susan Slade", and his final film "Brain of Blood" in 1972 (although "Doomsday Machine”, made in 1967, was his last to be released). Williams had a starring role on the TV series "Hawaiian Eye" from 1960 until 1963. As his career declined, he opened an acting school in Los Angeles. Williams lived a very private life, never marring. He was evidently very religious, and there are many, many rumors that he was a closeted gay man. Grant Williams died in 1985 from peritonitis at the age of 53.
Randy Stuart plays “Louise Carey”, the wife of “Scott”, and Stuart does a great job having us believe "Louise" loves her husband. Kansas born Randy Stuart began in the theater at the age of three. She and her family made their way to California where she attended high school, and was soon given a contract at 20th Century-Fox. Her film debut was in a small role in 1947's "The Foxes of Harrow". She worked continually, most notably as "Lt. Eloise Billings” in the 1949 comedy "I Was a Male War Bride”, as "Eve's" roommate (who calls the "Richards" pretending that "Eve" is sick) in the 1950 Oscar-winning "All About Eve", and as "Marge Boyd" in the 1951 musical "I Can Get It for You Wholesale". From 1952 on, Stuart primarily appeared on television, making only a handful more films, one of which was "The Incredible Shrinking Man", for which she is best remembered. Like Williams, stardom escaped her, though she had a steady career on television through the 1960s. Stuart could be seen on such classic shows as "Maverick", "Bonanza", "77 Sunset Strip", "Hawaiian Eye" (with Williams), and recurring roles on shows which include "Biff Baker, U.S.A.", "This Is the Life ", and "The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp". Her other films include "Whirlpool", "Dancing in the Dark", "Room for One More", and "Man from God's Country". Her final appearance was on a 1975 episode of "Marcus Welby, M.D.". She was married four times. Randy Stuart died in 1996 at the age of 71.
A quick word about two actors who play doctors in "The Incredible Shrinking Man". First is Raymond Bailey, who plays "Doctor Thomas Silver", the doctor from the California Medical Research Unit who runs an endless list of tests on “Scott" and determines why he's shrinking. This San Francisco-born actor had a prosperous career as a character actor, appearing in 162 films and TV shows between 1939 and 1975. He too was primarily seen on television, most famously as "Mr. Drysdale" on the classic TV comedy "The Beverly Hillbillies" from 1962 until 1971. His other TV appearances include shows such as "The Twilight Zone", "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis", "Bonanza", "Alfred Hitchcock Presents", "Perry Mason", and "The Untouchables". His films include the other classics, "Sabrina", "Tarantula", "Picnic", "Vertigo", "I Want to Live!", "The Absent Minded Professor", and his final film, "The Strongest Man in the World". He was married for nearly thirty years, until his death. William Bailey died in 1980 at the age of 75.
The other actor I’ll mention is William Schallert, who plays "Doctor Arthur Bramson", the first doctor "Scott" sees who tells him "People don't get shorter 'Mr. Carey'. They just don't get shorter". This Los Angeles-born actor is one of Hollywood's most prolific, appearing in 388 films and TV shows from 1947 (in an uncredited role in "The Foxes of Harrow”) through 2014 (in an episode of "2 Broke Girls"). Though he appeared in films early in his career, he spent most of his time on television. Schallert made an appearance in just about every American TV show known to man, and a few of his recurring roles include shows such as "Get Smart", "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis", "Gunsmoke", "Hawaii Five-O", "The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries", "The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo", "Santa Barbara", "True Blood", and perhaps most famously, as "Martin Lane" (Patty Duke's father) on "The Patty Duke Show" from 1963 - 1966. He earned one Daytime Emmy Award nomination for an episode of "The Fisher Family" in 1952. A sampling of his films include "Mighty Joe Young", "The Man from Planet X", "Written on the Wind", "Them!", "Gog", an uncredited role in "Singin' in the Rain", a hotel clerk in "Pillow Talk", and "Mayor Schubert" in "In the Heat of the Night". Schallert helped found the Circle Theatre in Los Angeles, and served as president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1979 until 1981. He was married once, to actress Leah Waggner for over 50 years, until her death. William Schallert died in 2016 at the age of 93.
For all you animal lovers, I'll mention Orangey, "Scott's" house cat "Butch". Though Arnold stated there were around forty orange-colored tabby cats used in "The Incredible Shrinking Man" (about one for each trick), the only cat to get screen credit is Orangey. For a cat that someone called the meanest in the world (he would scratch, bite, and hiss at actors and crew) he had quite a film career, and is the only cat to win two PATSY Awards (Picture Animal Top Star of the Year) – the animal equivalent of an Oscar. He won them playing the title role in the 1951 film "Rhubarb", and as "Cat" opposite Audrey Hepburn in the 1961 film "Breakfast at Tiffany's". Trained by famed Hollywood animal trainer Frank Inn, Orangey was very disciplined and could stay on a set for hours, though he would occasionally run and hide, shutting down a production. It has been said that in all of his films, Orangey was actually not just one cat, but several orange tabbies. In any case, the 30 films and TV shows attributed to Orangey include the 1950's Eve Arden hit TV series "Our Miss Brooks", the 1960's TV classic “Batman", and the classic TV series "The Beverly Hillbillies", and his films include "Gigi", "The Diary of Ann Frank", "This Island Earth", and "Gigot". No one knows exactly when Orangey died, but his last credited appearance is in a 1968 episode of "The Flying Nun".
This week’s film is beautifully poetic, unexpectedly philosophical, and thrillingly fun. Enjoy one of cinema’s greatest sci-fi films, enjoy “The Incredible Shrinking Man”!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
The special effects may look simple, but they were meticulously planned down to the inch. In many cases, two mathematically identically proportioned sets were constructed, one life-sized and an exact oversized duplicate. The action with people, animals or insects would be filmed on the life-sized set, and Williams would film his scenes on the oversized set. With a split-screen technique the two would be joined, seamlessly linking the life-sized set on one side with the oversized set on the other, making it look like everyone was on one set.
The scenes involving the cat or the spider were even more intricate. For instance, the spider filmed all its scenes first, on life-sized sets. After being edited together, Arnold watched the footage with taking a frame count while using a metronome, making notes on what count came each of the spider's actions. He then filmed the scenes with Williams on a duplicate oversized set, telling him the numbers in the count on which to react. So Grant was acting to a numerical count rather than a spider. Again, the two pieces of film were pieced together to make it look like Williams and the spider were in the same place at the same time.
A bit of trivial about the spider:
Because the tarantulas in the US were small, the cameraman couldn’t focus the lens on them well enough for close-ups, so they brought in the larger Panamanian tarantulas – the same ones used in Arnold’s 1955 sci-fi film “Tarantula!”.
The giant water drops beneath the water heater were accomplished by filling condoms with water and dropping them from a conveyor belt. They looked and splattered just like giant drops of water.
Everyone was against the ending of the film, which Arnold wrote himself. They all wanted a happy Hollywood ending in which “Scott” reverts back to his original size, to which Arnold replied “Over my dead body”. Luckily the studio let him keep his philosophical, semi-religious ending, which has since become iconic. As “Scott” shrinks down to nothing, he peers up at the night sky with all its wonder and realizes we are all part of something larger than we can understand. He ends with:
"And in that moment I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. I had thought in terms of Man’s own limited dimension. I had presumed upon Nature. That existence begins and ends is Man’s conception not Nature’s. And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away and in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something too. To God, there is no zero”.