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Review: Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man on Criterion Blu-ray

This startlingly personal and ambitious fantasy receives a top-notch transfer as well as supplements that honor its emotional acuity.

4.5

The Incredible Shrinking Man

Like many horror and fantasy films of the 1950s, Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man hinges on a disconnect between outward appearances and inward fears. Outside of the manicured people and suburbs promoted by television shows of the time were myriad repressions and inadequacies, not to mention tensions over a rising atomic threat.

The heart of the concept of Arnold’s film, adapted by Richard Matheson from his 1956 novel The Shrinking Man, is to watch as a perfect-on-paper couple gradually becomes acquainted with the symbols of a darker reality. This reorientation is initially unmooring but eventually proves to be liberating for the film’s hero—a break from living under cover of relentless euphemism. Or to use the parlance of a more contemporary sci-fi fantasy, the hero of The Incredible Shrinking Man is confronted with a red pill.

Scott (Grant Williams) and Louise (Randy Stewart) are the sort of fit, attractive American couple that one might encounter in a catalog swinging a golf club or highlighting a new washing machine. They’re introduced at the height of relaxation, sitting on Scott’s brother’s boat, baking in the sun, arguing playfully over who’s going to bring Scott a beer. Louise descends the vessel while Scott is enveloped briefly in a silvery mist that floats by over the water. The sheer arbitrariness of this event is among the film and book’s great touches: Just like that, an allusion to atomic anxiety punctures Scott’s postcard life and upends it.

Back from the trip, Scott notices that his clothes are getting too big. He’s dismissed by his doctor (Raymond Bailey) and told to eat more, until he begins to clearly lose his height as well. Of course, the doctors who tend to him have never seen a case similar to Scott’s, and while they labor for a cure, we know by the very hook of the narrative where this is going.

Of The Incredible Shrinking Man’s various sights, which are, well, incredible, particularly considering the production’s resources, the most resonant and troubling images concern Scott when he’s about three feet tall. Visually, he suggests a kind of man-child whom Louise must care for, which represents a profound shift in the couple’s axis of power, as well as a nightmare of emasculation, as Scott loses his job, the timbre of his voice, and, implicitly, the ability to please his wife. It’s a pity that the film, constrained by the censorious standards of its time, couldn’t dive deeper into the psychosexual implications of this scenario the way that Matheson did in the book—though the images of a man shrinking to nothing among an otherwise clean, sterile, and “perfect” environment still pack an existentially loaded punch.

The special effects utilized to render Williams small, quite accomplished for their day and generally impressive now, also offer a visual dissonance that underscores the splintering of Scott and Louise’s relationship. We can tell that something is “off,” that Louise isn’t quite talking in the same frame as her man, who’s becoming more alienated from his society by the minute, especially as the world gets wind of his predicament. Enraged, Scott accuses the world of mocking him, with Louise offering token encouragements, literally looking down on him from seemingly an entirely different reality—a humiliation that reaches its apotheosis when Scott shrinks down to an inch and comes to live in a doll house, essentially as a plaything. And Williams ferociously plumbs Scott’s fear and impotence, as well as the newform acceptance he feels when he clings to another woman (April Kent), a small person who works at a carnival.

In this context, Scott’s transformation into a true mini-man is a relief. This development steers us away from the implications of Scott growing too small for his wife, fears that anyone who’s ever been in a relationship can probably relate to, and into the more distanced territory of a Robinson Crusoe story. After an intense and viscerally staged run-in with the house cat, Scott plummets downstairs into the basement, disappearing from his wife forever.

Mistaken for dead by a society who quickly forgets his notoriety, and by a wife who may be relieved, Scott confronts the barren concrete floor and maintenance bric-a-brac as an alien desert. The details of his survival are ingenious and have inspired many a fantasy film since: He fashions needles into swords and hooks, locates a furnace drip as a source of water, and protractedly battles a large and terrifying spider for control of the few crumbs of cheese that can feed him for who knows how long. When Scott strikes a match, for him a large torch, he’s rediscovering his dignity, refashioning himself as an explorer into the great unknown.

The Incredible Shrinking Man has commonalities with another Matheson book, I Am Legend, as both concern complacent men who are shaped into warriors by fantastic occurrences. I Am Legend is a thornier work, a parable of how notions of history, and of monstrosity, are shaped by the winners, while The Shrinking Man and this film adaptation are powered by the weird relief of having one’s fears of irrelevance or “smallness” openly physicalized so as to be faced. It’s a metaphor of bottomless possibilities, from the pressures to live up to an ideal form of manliness to the sickening effects of any form of repression. No longer required to play the ideal ‘50s gent, Scott moves beyond his insecurities and learns of the world that was always just beneath his feet. And Arnold, a shrewd and resolutely direct journeyman stylist, embraces Scott’s transformation with becoming matter-of-factness, springing trick images that underscore the wonder and torment of the everyday. In short, Arnold takes Scott seriously, as Matheson did on the page, allowing amazing adventures to stem out from his psyche.

Image/Sound

This 4K digital restoration, undertaken by Universal Pictures, honors the image of the source print to the point of underscoring its blemishes. The film was made utilizing a variety of split screens and rearview projections, so that, say, a shot of actor Grant Williams next to oversized props could be merged with a shot of other actors next to normal-sized furnishings. The newfound clarity of foreground and background imagery, which is superb and very detailed, also occasionally emphasizes the split-screen tactics. That said, it’s difficult to imagine the film looking any better without the undertaking of unconscionable modern tinkering; the rough patches here are preserved in the name of history and for their own rough-hewn poetry. Meanwhile, the English LPCM 1.0 track boasts a pristine and highly varied soundstage that accentuates the sonic dimensions of the protagonist’s changing body.

Extras

In a new interview recorded for this disc, Richard Matheson’s son, writer Richard Christian Matheson, discusses the importance of The Shrinking Man novel to his father, particularly how it reflected the blossoming icon’s early struggles as a father and freelancer. Richard would go down to the basement and, as the younger Matheson says, talk to his little man, imagining exploits. The film and book’s themes of marginalization and masculinity are covered from many angles throughout the other supplements on this disc, from a new interview with filmmaker Joe Dante and comedian Dana Gould to a rediscovered archive interview with director Jack Arnold that was shot by the German journalist Roland Johannes in 1983. Arnold is sharp and perceptive, especially when discussing the film’s special effects, which are also analyzed at length by visual effects supervisor Craig Barron and sound designer Ben Burtt.

A new audio commentary by author and film historian Tom Weaver and horror music expert David Schecter is glib for my tastes (at times one wonders if Weaver even likes The Incredible Shrinking Man) but full of production information and context pertaining to other genre films of the time. Quite a few odds and ends round out an exhaustive and fascinating supplements collection: a vintage trailer, a teaser narrated by Orson Welles, a featurette on the lost music of The Incredible Shrinking Man, partial 8mm recordings of the film itself, a quite good hour-long documentary covering Jack Arnold’s career and Universal’s post-war horror films, and a booklet featuring a beautiful and poignant essay by the critic Geoffrey O’Brien.

Overall

This startlingly personal and ambitious 1950s American fantasy receives a top-notch transfer as well as supplements that honor its emotional acuity.

Cast: Grant Williams, Randy Stewart, April Kent, Paul Langton, Raymond Bailey, William Schallert, Frank Scannell, Helene Marshall, Diana Darrin, Billy Curtis Director: Jack Arnold Screenwriter: Richard Matheson Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 81 min Rating: NR Year: 1957 Release Date: October 19, 2021 Buy: Video

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