The Incredible Shrinking Man

*****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Incredible Shrinking Man
"It's testament to Williams' ability that he is able to keep viewers identifying with him throughout, never becoming an object of pity or mockery."

Back in the 1950s, when men in the movies were Real Men, being a man who couldn't quite reach that standard was a disturbing prospect. Scott Carey (Grant Williams) begins this film tall, toned, tanned and golden haired, relaxing in the bow of a boat beside charming wife Louise (Randy Stuart). He's living the dream; but then, when he's alone up top, the boat drifts into the path of a strange mist which leaves a glistening residue on his skin, and something begins to change. "Am I the man of the future?" he will later ask himself. Scott is diminishing, shrinking, and although it's a slow process, it soon begins to have a dramatic impact on his life.

"People don't lose height!" exclaims Scott's doctor, inaccurately but passionately - and as it seems that nothing can bring the process to a halt, there is real cause for concern. Losing his job, Scott is forced to accept press offers to sell his story in an early exposé of the financial realities of media exploitation, and to endure crowds of paparazzi and sightseers outside his home thereafter. Ceasing to be the breadwinner undermines his confidence in his masculine role; he finds himself bullying Louise and hates himself for it. Small sorrows and humiliations, beginning with her no longer having to stand on tiptoe to kiss him, give way to more serious problems as he is reduced to the size of a child, of a doll, of an insect...

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A multifaceted story adapted by Richard Matheson from his own book, this film explores gender politics, economic shifts, social exclusion and the challenges of life with chronic illness and disability. Scott's furious resentment of his circumstances rows ever more self-destructive until he meets Clarice (April Kent) who has been a little person all her life and is happy with her lot as a circus performer - though some might see her as a victim, she's clearly living life on her own terms. Although Scott's condition will take him beyond what she can immediately help with, this pivotal moment sees him reassess his experience, no longer seeing himself as obliged to fit into a society that makes no effort to accommodate him in turn. It's a remarkably daring philosophy to have put before a mass audience in the period. It's testament to Williams' ability that he is able to keep viewers identifying with him throughout, never becoming an object of pity or mockery.

Williams is also impressive in the latter part of the film, when Scott's condition has reached the point where he is entirely cut off from human company. Here we see him in classic Fifties hero mode, taking on dangerous physical challenges and battling animals that want to eat him, yet the context reminds us of the toughness and ingenuity many disabled people have to summon up day to day. The actor delivers a voiceover that, for once, actually works, and is charismatic enough to keep the film interesting - even thrilling - as he struggles to go on alone, all the way to an unusual and daring ending.

The other think that stands out about this film is its special effects work. Naturally, given the period, there's no digital enhancement, though there is some use of compositing alongside forced perspective and practical effects. The set design, realised in several different scales, is excellent, but overall it's the confidence with which director Jack Arnold handles the framing that really makes it work. Even a scene involving water, notoriously difficult to scale, is remarkably realistic. The Incredible Shrinking Man has stood the test of time and remains one of the best speculative fiction films made to date.

Reviewed on: 10 Nov 2017
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Following exposure to a mysterious gas, a man begins to shrink - and doesn't stop.

Director: Jack Arnold

Writer: Richard Matheson

Starring: Grant Williams, Randy Stuart, April Kent, Paul Langton

Year: 1957

Runtime: 81 minutes

Country: US

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