Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Incredible Shrinking Man

There is perhaps no better way of tracing the fears and obsessions of a particular culture than by observing the kinds of fantasies they concoct in their storytelling arts. This is why, of course, the horror and science fiction movies of 1950s Hollywood so often centered around the terrifying effects of radiation, around the idea of science gone mad: after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with the Cold War seeming to threaten even more widescale nuclear devastation, hadn't the whole world gone mad? In these films, science and radioactivity created warped, bizarre creatures, never before seen; unleashed murderous monsters on the streets; and blew up ordinary earthly creatures to terrifying proportions. The horror and monster movies of the 50s are thus often barely disguised allegories for the damage done to the world in the nuclear age, visions of a grim future in which nuclear atrocities will do even greater harm. Among these films, Jack Arnold's The Incredible Shrinking Man provides perhaps the most striking and elegant vision of nuclear age horror, because it turns the effects of science directly onto man himself, rather than on the world around him. If monster movies like Them! imagined that radiation could create massive ants, towering over ordinary humans, this film instead shrinks down man, leaving the world untouched but humanity smaller, more inconsequential, an infinitesimal particle of dust in comparison to his own creations, a mere speck lost within the industrial, nuclear world he's created for himself. This is a poetic vision of the tragedy humanity has wrought for itself, a vision of a self-created world that leaves the individual an ever smaller, more unimportant role within it.

The roving cloud of radioactive mist that sparks the shrinking process of an ordinary man named Scott Carey (Grant Williams) is never explained except in the most vague, pseudo-scientific terms. It hardly matters: the cloud's very randomness and mysteriousness enhances the sense that Carey's predicament is universal, that it could happen to anyone, that he is only one among potential waves of victims of human "progress." The film's horror arises from Carey's increasing impotence, his loss of the usual signifiers of manly accomplishment. His initial shrinkage merely makes him comical in his business suits, like a child trying on his father's clothes, the sleeves too long and the material lying in baggy ruffles around his slightly smaller frame. As he shrinks further, he soon becomes distant from his wife Louise (Randy Stuart), his child's size body implying the impossibility of sexual contact, making their relationship strained and bizarre. There is a brief possibility of a different kind of "normal" life, with a midget woman (April Kent, not an actual midget but a woman shrunken down by optical printing, just as Williams is), but as Carey's shrinking accelerates that hope slips from his grasp as well. He's soon living in a dollhouse, completely divorced from the ordinary world, creating his own much smaller domain wherever he can. And following a harrowing cat attack, he is thrown into the basement, thought dead by his wife and brother (Paul Langton), forced to fall back on primitive hunt-and-gather means of survival in a harsh world made alien by his small size.

The film is thus a potent allegory for the reversal of progress, for the imagined point at which humanity's thirst for forward motion might backfire, unleashing consequences that would send us back to ground zero. Carey is continually forced to start his life anew, to adjust to his new circumstances with compensating actions, figuring out how to survive in each new state he progresses through as he shrinks. Carey loses his grip on the modern world, eventually becoming nearly a caveman, creating makeshift shelter, building tools and weapons in order to find sustenance, navigate his suddenly massive world, and fight off potential predators. The markers that formerly stabilized and drove his life — success in business and sexual love with his wife — become irrelevant, forgotten as early as the scene where Carey, preoccupied with the beginning stages of his shrinkage, shrugs off his wife's question about something that happened at work. It is not insignificant that the film is about a shrinking man rather than a shrinking woman. Carey is definitively a 1950s masculine archetype, the strong, career-driven man who provides for his family, and his shrinking is emasculating and embarrassing as much for the way it strips him of occupation and potency as for its inherent physical effects.

The film visualizes Carey's astonishing transformations with a combination of optical printing and oversized set construction, and despite some occasionally crude tricks (Williams' legs are noticeably transparent in at least one optically printed scene) the overall effect is convincing. When Carey, shrunken down to doll size, is attacked by his own pet cat, the actual mechanics of the attack are clumsy, but it is nevertheless a terrifying sequence, the urgency of the cutting and the soundtrack's emphasis on the cat's enraged shrieks overcoming the awkward use of rear projection. Later, the scenes where Carey struggles with a nasty, hairy spider in the basement are even scarier and better executed, perhaps because the filmmakers could resort to models as well as footage of a real spider in assembling this sequence. The film is raw and forceful in its aesthetics, never hiding its origins as a low-budget sci-fi/horror B-film, but director Jack Arnold takes full advantage of the story's straightforward progression. The film rarely deviates from Carey, particularly in the second half, once his isolation from his wife and the rest of the world becomes complete. At this point, everything is filmed from the tiny Carey's perspective, creating a world in which ordinary objects become towering and insurmountable, where the four walls of a basement encompass the entirety of the known world. The basement staircase, filmed from an extreme low angle, looks like it ascends into the stratosphere, so high does it go, and so large are the tremendous gaps between each step.

This claustrophobic commitment to Carey's outlook, to his worm's eye viewpoint on the suddenly massive confines of his own home, makes The Incredible Shrinking Man a startlingly effective piece of genre filmmaking. It is frightening, exciting, and also almost unbearably sad: Arnold never lets his audience forget that Carey's predicament is not only a physical one, not only a question of survival and facing threats like killer spiders, but an existential dilemma, the loss of a man's sense of his own place in the universe. The finale thus locates its climax, not in Carey's tense, violent confrontation with the spider, but in its aftermath, in the hero's existential voiceover as, finally shrunken small enough, he slips through the grating of the basement window and out into the massive frontier of his backyard. At this point, Arnold begins pulling back, revealing the hero as a speck amidst the overgrowth of the yard, as tiny and insignificant as a blade of grass. The image then fades into the cosmos, into a field of stars and galaxies, pulling back even further, pulling back until even individual stars appear small and dot-like. From a wide enough perspective, this finale suggests, everything is unimportant, everything has only the smallest of places within this vast universe. Carey's situation is not unique; it is shared with all of humanity, and with the world as a whole.


Richard Bellamy said...

Along with The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms this is my favorite 50s sci-fi film. It blew me away when I first saw it as a Saturday afternoon matinee at my local movie theater in the 60s, and it is still powerful. I love how the man's small size is so believable in the basement because they used huge props; it isn't all composite shots. I love how the basement turns into a wasteland with huge cliffs - with the flash flood from the water heater. I always thought - good thing his wife left that piece of cake down there! I love this movie!

Again, thanks for all the posts on old movies. You've covered a lot and I'm trying to come up with an old favorite to review that you haven't written about.

Mykal Banta said...

Well done, Ed - Mykal from Radiation Cinema!