Type search terms and hit "Enter"

The Incredible Shrinking Man

by Glenn Erickson Oct 05, 2021

Criterion gives this classic its first exposure on Region A Blu-ray!  A new 4K remaster puts the story of a guy too tiny to escape from his own cellar in its very best light — Scott Carey’s combat with the spider is still a scary delight, with a newly-fixed imperfection. Criterion’s extras lean toward fan-oriented fare: Tom Weaver tops the stack with a fine commentary and we get good input from Ben Burtt, Craig Barron, Richard Christian Matheson, Joe Dante and Dana Gould — plus thoughtful liner notes by Geoffrey O’Brien. And don’t forget those excellent movie trailers narrated by a breathless Orson Welles. Robert Scott Carey should have his own statue in Los Angeles, like Rocky Balboa in Philadelphia.


The Incredible Shrinking Man
Blu-ray
The Criterion Collection 1100
1957 / B&W / 1:85 widescreen / 81 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date October 19, 2021 / 39.95
Starring: Grant Williams, Randy Stuart, April Kent, Paul Langton, Raymond Bailey, William Schallert.
Cinematography: Ellis W. Carter
Art Directors: Alexander Golitzen, Robert Clatworthy
Film Editor: Albrecht Joseph
Special Effects: Clifford Stine, Tom McCrory (special photography), Everett H. Broussard, Roswell A. Hoffmann (optical effects), Cleo E. Baker, Fred Knoth (miniature and physical effects)
Music supervision: Joseph Gershenson
Trumpet Solo: Ray Anthony
Written by Richard Matheson from his novel The Shrinking Man
Produced by Albert Zugsmith
Directed by
Jack Arnold

In 1972 I attended a fantastic Los Angeles County Museum screening of young Steven Spielberg’s Duel and Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man. Only a few vintage science fiction pictures were getting any respect at that time, and this 1957 Universal-International release was one of the most deserving. The author and screenwriter Richard Matheson talked to us afterward. He told us that he had seen Shrinking Man only once when it was new. He practically apologized for the movie, and hated its altered ending, which he said was not his work. We couldn’t believe he’d think such a thing about what is so obviously a poetic, transcendant experience — that can be honestly described as profound. Much later, we were happy to learn, Richard Matheson saw it again and changed his mind.

The wildcat producer Albert Zugsmith had recently had a prestigious hit with Douglas Sirk’s star-studded Written on the Wind. He obtained Richard Matheson’s creepy novel The Shrinking Man and pitched it as a sure winner, a show with possibilities to excite any studio executive. The project wasl not treated as a down-market item from the sci-fi/horror unit. That unit’s producer William Alland would soon jump ship to Paramount. His Sci-fi specialist Jack Arnold wanted out of the rubber monster game but may have signed on when he read the superior screenplay and learned about the bigger budget allotted the project. Given ample production resources, Zugsmith’s show outdoes all of William Alland’s Sci-Fi efforts.

Kids loved the miniaturization effects, a concept seen mostly in comedy fantasies since the failure of Paramount’s Dr. Cyclops back in 1940. Matheson’s adult, thoughtful script about also resonates with the the anxieties of its time. The Incredible Shrinking Man is Science Fiction poetry for existentialists: what could have become just another monster movie is instead a wondrous delight.

 

Returning from a boating weekend, Los Angeles ad writer Robert Scott Carey (Grant Williams) notices that he’s gradually losing both height and weight. His malady at first baffles Drs. Bramson and Silver (William Schallert & Raymond Bailey). Like a reverse cancer, Carey’s tissues and organs — everything — are shrinking by a fraction of an inch a day. The specialists soon formulate a theory of what’s going on, and work tirelessly to halt Carey’s shrinking process. As Scott becomes smaller he must retreat from the world and hide like a freak. To earn a living, he sells his story to the press. Eventually shrunken so small that he can live in a doll’s house, the irritable Scott gives his long-suffering wife Louise (Randy Stuart) no rest. He’s still shrinking with no end in sight when the cat, long banished from the house, sneaks back in. . .

The Gothic horror tradition speaks to the human fear of suffering and death, or the loss of one’s soul to bestiality or the Devil. But the insecure postwar years brought an existential crisis into complacent hometown America. The famous ‘intelligent’ ’50s Sci-fi thriller Invasion of the Body Snatchers is about toxic depersonalization. It encouraged audiences to accept the idea that things aren’t what they seem, that the world we see might be some kind of vast political conspiracy.

The Incredible Shrinking Man exploits a complimentary set of modern fears that upend common values, facts and assumptions. Scott Carey is stricken with an unprecedented, deadly malady. But getting smaller robs him of his identity, his sense of belonging. It threatens to render his life meaningless, to make him into a cosmic joke.

 

There is a classic kind of character that discovers his true nature by losing or casting off material possessions; some philosophies say this is a path to spiritual grace. Carey involuntariy undergoes a similar process as he shrinks bit by bit toward an inevitable zero of personal oblivion. Carey loses everything by which he defines himself. First his clothes don’t fit. Then his wedding ring falls off. The doctors concentrate on Scott’s biological problem but nobody knows how to deal with his mental state. Scott’s wife must mother him like a child. Man becomes toy, husband a helpless baby.

Matheson’s original novella emphasized Carey’s sexual trauma as he realizes that he’s no longer going to be intimate with his wife, and that she may soon need to find someone else, perhaps Carey’s own brother. His resentment grows with the forced isolation. He knows that his personality is changing along with his situation. He can’t help it.

Normally a 1957 movie would have to ignore this sex angle. Scott expresses his frustration through terrible behavior. He shouts angry unreasonable demands at his wife Louise. Nothing she does is good enough. In his jeans and tennis shoes, sitting on a chair with his feet barely reaching the end of the cushion, Scott at first looks like a little kid. Having a sex drive with such a small body must seem like a castration nightmare out of Jim Thompson’s The Nothing Man.

 

When Carey is three feet tall he wanders out to the carnival. He meets a young midget (April Kent) and begs for her company, desperate to maintain his identity as a man. His shrinking halts, but then re-commences. Carey doesn’t know it yet, but his only certainty is eternal change, and utter isolation in the knowledge that his fate must ultimately be faced alone. Already withdrawn from his normal suburban existence, Scott is drifting into neurosis when events plunge him into a miniature Robinson Crusoe world.

Welcome to Surreal World.

Scott Carey’s ordinary, mundane cellar is now a perilous, hostile prison. Being trapped there expresses a chaos beyond mere disproportion — when one is two inches tall, normal surroundings are grotesque. The Incredible Shrinking Man in this way resembles Alice Through the Looking Glass in its surreal re-ordering of existing reality. His biggest adversary in this cellar is a terrifying spider. Scott rallies his will by flexing an instinct built into the human race, the Territorial Imperative. To battle that spider menace Carey must summon resources he never knew he had.

Richard Matheson wrote both the source novel and the screenplay, but reportedly wasn’t coming up with a satisfactory conclusion. The film’s ethereal, dazzling finale was not written by Matheson and was added against his wishes. It’s something completely unexpected: now just a fraction of an inch tall, Scott looks up at the night sky and experiences a revelation: everything else has changed, but not the stars; they’re just as he remembers them. Scott makes peace with his fate, with his place in the cosmos. His ordeal was part of the process of understanding. . . he had to take The Journey Out and In

 

At one point a high angle on Scott Carey abruptly retreats, and he figuratively disappears into the microscopic world. We come to Shrinking Man expecting another matinee diversion only to be transported by this mindbending conclusion. I’ve been at screenings of this film in which one could feel an “ahh” rise from the audience at Carey’s words,

“And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away. And in their place came acceptance. . .”

As Scott continues with his final speech, The Incredible Shrinking Man achieves what might be the most profound ‘Sense of Wonder’ in filmed Science Fiction. Kids that have no idea what transcendence is can feel the pull on some part of their minds. Scott’s revelation can be interpreted as a mystic surrender to fate, or an expression of the death experience. It’s really a triumph over complacent existence. With the simple defiant words, “I Still Exist,” Robert Scott Carey becomes the first folk hero of the Atomic Age.

Director Jack Arnold’s show likely has more individual optical effect shots than anything made in the 1950s. Scott Carey’s battle with the spider is one of the best directed special effects sequences ever. It doesn’t matter that modern fans can pick apart the perspective tricks, split screens and traveling mattes. One wishes all the original optical elements still existed to allow shots to be re-composited more perfectly, with shadows for the tiny Scott, etc. But Matheson’s compelling script makes ‘perfect’ effects unnecessary. Matheson’s screenplay repeatedly hits exactly the right note. The Shrinking Man works because of the little observations, like Scott’s wedding ring dropping from his finger just as he and Louise are trying to reaffirm their marriage.

 

Most older Hollywood movies believe in tidy resolutions and closure, with all buttons buttoned. No matter what chaos is depicted, they end with equilibrium restored and the world returned to ‘normal.’ The best aspect of Matheson’s story is the way it pulls the rug out from under our expectations. Scott’s misadventure has immutable consequences. Once he falls into the cellar and becomes part of that alternate miniature underworld, he’s never heard from again. Louise never learns the truth. At the ¾ mark the housewife leaves the house in a car and never comes back. Never. Well, sooner or later, everything ends. The Incredible Shrinking Man deals with finality, the obliteration of values thought to be permanent.

Is the movie about scary ‘atomic radiation,’ or is it just basic anxiety poetry?  Scott’s malady is initially a mystery and then a theory, but all that finally becomes irrelevant. The film’s first potent image is a man alone facing an approaching ‘mystery cloud,’ which stands in for every ‘unknown’ we face in the uncertain future. The Incredible Shrinking Man is not harmed by the utter absurdity of its science. For Scott to shrink so perfectly his cells would have to shrink proportionately, not just diminish. And how do hard bones get smaller — once formed, they’re largely inert. Scott’s plight is better off left as a philosophical enigma, a poetic fable of modern anxieties.

I still think that another 1957 movie parallels The Incredible Shrinking Man, despite not being related to it in any way. Both touch upon (deep breath) the existential mystery of the human condition. A woman of modest means, not too bright but with a good heart, is cruelly cheated and robbed of her house, her money, everything by which she defines herself. She’s left at the end walking alone, with nothing at all. Yet all it takes to raise her spirit is some laughter and smiles from a few passers-by. She hasn’t changed. Some human essence in her cannot be taken away. In the last shot the woman breaks the barrier between the filmed story and the audience, and looks right at the camera, right into us, and smiles. She might was well be saying, “I still exist.” The movie is Federico Fellini’s best, The Nights of Cabiria.

 


 

The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of The Incredible Shrinking Man is said to be a new 4K digital restoration. Overall it looks superb, with razor sharp audio that makes Ray Anthony’s opening trumpet notes jump to life. A couple of passages early on seem a bit lighter and less distinct — perhaps they’re a patch of replacement negative?  I compared this new scan to the German Koch Media disc from 2015. Both are fine. The German disc has been hit with more contrast here and there, which may give an illusion of added sharpness now and then. It’s not so — the opening logo is very contrasty. Criterion’s image is much cleaner, and much more stable — just in scanning at chapter stops, I saw some image jitter on the German release.

If you haven’t seen this show in twenty years or so you’re going to be knocked out by its proper widescreen ratio. Older TV prints pan-scanned the image — as did 35mm prints that Universal circulated theatrically for a time. The spider battle looks the best I’ve ever seen it. Some TV prints were missing the gruesome close-up of arachnid blood oozing down Scott Carey’s pin, and over his hands. When the shot was restored (on all previous disc copies I’ve seen) there still remained a jarring music jump and a rough splice on the cut to the final view of the dead spider’s jaws. The music is now unbroken, but I see no additional new shots. Perhaps just a few frames were restored to a shot?

This is the first Region A release of Shrinking Man on Blu-ray. Fine discs from Germany (2015) and England (2018) were both encoded ‘Region B.’   Shrinking Man is definitely a title that deserves the honor of a Criterion release; in 2009 it was chosen for the National Registry, after all.

How are Criterion’s extras?  They’re a mix of great new information, with entertaining fan-based items. Audio commentator Tom Weaver’s presentation is up to his high standards. He had access to early screenplay drafts, that he compares to both the final film and passages from Richard Matheson’s more adult-oriented novel. His reportage on production matters is always fact-based, from studio documents. Weaver goes light on the jokes, at least until the very end. He at times belittles the movie, making fun of the ‘whiney’ Scott Carey character, who he expects to maintain good manners and mental equilibrium even after being clobbered with a mysterious, humiliating disease. I think it’s clear that poor Scott is mentally unbalanced, and our sympathy is split between him and the brave Louise.

Weaver is a ‘just the facts’ kind of guy. He asks why the cat wasn’t examined to see if Scott was in its stomach. He tells us that he has no use for the mumbo jumbo of Scott’s final speech — but then he reverses himself with a perfectly viable interpretation for Scott’s fate, and explains it well. Tom’s screenplay draft studies yield a valuable revelation, a line that was altered to inject ‘God’ into the final speech. Whatta ya know, The Incredible Shrinking Man is therefore yet another ’50s film in which a church sermon is imposed on an author’s original secular philosophy.

Music expert David Schecter sheds new light on Shrinking Man as well. He discusses the film’s score during a break in Tom Weaver’s commentary, and then hosts a ‘lost music’ piece presenting alternate music cues that were cut or altered in editorial. There’s a lot of music in the movie, beautifully scored. We get to hear a (demo?) record of the main title theme, that has lyrics. It’s a song called ‘The Girl in the Lonely Room,’ not originally written for this movie.

Two of the featurettes are from the earlier Arrow disc. They have new dates but may be as old as 2016: the late Bill Warren and Ted Newsom are participants. They are what we expect to see on a fan-based special edition: busy collages of voice bites from notables and experts that go over basic facts and oft-heard generalities. Fancy graphics dominate. Criterion’s house style is more pared down, functional and focused.

Director Jack Arnold is a talented director and largely responsible for the success of these imaginative movies. But as Tom Weaver demonstrated more than once, when interviewed Arnold often just made things up, and sometimes took credit for things he didn’t do. A Jack Arnold biographer tells us that Arnold wrote the final soliloquy for Shrinking Man. Please correct me, but hasn’t it been established that another writer contributed that?  Was it Richard Alan Simmons?

Jack Arnold makes a personal appearance in extended clips from a 1983 interview taped by a German crew when he was working at Universal on projects that would remain unfinished. Arnold’s responses to technical questions are generalized and unilluminating, but he’s cooperative and friendly, and not too self-aggrandizing.

Richard Christian Matheson proves a good communicator in his separate on-camera memoir about his father. He explains how the book is really an expression of his father’s creative isolation and insecurities. The Shrinking Man was Richard Matheson’s last attempt to get a book published — he was ready to give up and work for his brother.

An entertaining in-house extra is a discussion with Craig Barron and Ben Burtt, Criterion’s go-to duo for analysis of visual effects and audio tracks. Barron immediately laments that few prime-source accounts exist of how Clifford Stine and the optical wizards worked, or indeed, who did what. Before 2001 and Star Wars, studios assumed that ‘movie magic’ was not something to be documented or publicized. (Why, all those brilliant technicians might want to be properly compensated.)

The pair smartly reverse-engineer some of the effects, offering clear explanations of the split-screen and hi-contrast matting processes. With no hard research to reference, they eventually fall back on the same talk we hear on the fan-based extras: “Gee I loved these as a kid — but I first saw them on TV.”  Their best material is an illuminating rundown on the ubiquitous cat performer called ‘Orangey,’ who Barron reveals was really an entire mob of trained cats. For the fade out Barron pulls the same comic gag that Tom Weaver did.

 

Criterion’s discussion piece with director Joe Dante and comic/writer Dana Gould mixes nostalgia with some incisive observations. Dante’s observations carry weight: he did see the film theatrically in 1957 and he also knew Jack Arnold well. We are pleased when Dante points out the William Schallert connection between this film and his own comedy Innerspace, itself a filmic descendant of Shrinking Man.

An 8mm Castle Films digest reel of Shrinking Man is exactly the kind of ‘grab anything’ extra seen on German discs. Its presence also feels a little patronizing — if Criterion did a Psycho disc, would they include the eight-minute 8mm digest reel Castle sold for that title?   But we really like seeing the original trailer and teaser trailer, that feature Saul Bass-like graphics and terrific Orson Welles narration. Neither are in super condition but they’re the best I’ve seen them, and they’re fine examples of trailer advertising that an audience can’t ignore.

Geoffrey O’Brien’s insert liner notes are up to Criterion standards, with no double-standard bias against unworthy ‘pop existentialism.’ O’Brien offers thoughtful insights. Scott Carey’s diagnosis indicates the presence of pesticides, which he relates to the ecological predictions of Rachel Carson. He also tags some rewarding visual allusions to other screen heroes. The mysterious mist in the boating scene leaves a glistening liquid on Scott Carey’s chest, that glitters just like the dragon’s blood on Fritz Lang’s Siegfried; each hero finds himself transformed. In Carey’s fight for life he must summon the nerve and daring of the thief Abu, another heroic killer of spiders.

I like Adam Maida’s sparse cover design. Gary Teetzel remarked on its similarity to the advertising graphics for the Fox movie The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. It’s a fitting choice: in essence both movies address modern man’s insecurity about his place in an ever-evolving world.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The Incredible Shrinking Man
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: audio commmentary with Tom Weaver plus David Schecter; effects and audio discussion with Craig Barron and Ben Burtt; Let’s Get Small, conversation with Joe Dante and Dana Gould; Auteur on the Campus: Jack Arnold at Universal documentary; 2016 interview with the author and screenwriter’s son, Richard Christian Matheson; 1983 interview with director Jack Arnold; The Lost Music featurette; 8mm digest version; original teaser and trailer. Folding insert essay by Geoffrey O’Brien.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
October 3, 2021
(6577shri)
CINESAVANT

Visit CineSavant’s Main Column Page
Glenn Erickson answers most reader mail:
cinesavant@gmail.com

Text © Copyright 2021 Glenn Erickson

Here’s Illeana Douglas on the Arnold/Matheson classic:

About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.