Tomorrowsday #2: Incredible Shrinking Man, I Love You


Title suggested by the great Tom Lehrer, who listed several possible movie themes before actually singing a suggested love song for Pasolini’s OEDIPUS REX.

In fact, writer Richard Matheson and director Jack Arnold’s 1957 B-classic already has a swooning romantic theme, performed by Ray Anthony on his trumpet as part of music supervisor Joseph Gershenson’s score, economically compounded from the work of four different composers. Despite their varied attributions, Universal’s fifties sci-fi horror ouput have a highly distinctive and consistent musical style, maybe because Gershenson (whose name sounds like a drunkard’s slur) compiled most of them — lots of musical SHRIEKS OF ALARM, like the CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON’s motif of alarm…

Ahah! The Chiseler has the explanation: uncredited Herman Stein is the musical link, the man with the shrieks.

The music accompanies a really enjoyable title sequence, though one might argue that the little outline of a diminishing human figure is unnecessarily literal. The big white encroaching cloud looks to be the same element used later for the radioactive fogbank, before it was optically inserted into an ocean background. By itself, it’s scarily abstract.

“I’m telling you, this movie is a goddamn masterpiece!” Fiona would declare several times during our recent viewing of it. It starts gently — all the non-shrinking scenes are done very straightforwardly, following Sidney Pollock’s sage dictum, “Let the boring crap be boring crap.” Jack Arnold could be quite prosaic in his shooting, but he knew how to make the most of a strange set-piece. The opening scene is just relaxed banter on a yacht with our two likeable leads — until that weird cloud descends, missing minor Hawksian Woman Randy Stuart as she goes to get the beer, but dropping glittering particles on Grant Williams.

One of the things the sci-fi movies stimulated in me was my Keatsian negative capability — getting pleasure and fascination from things I couldn’t understand. I *think* I picked up on the fact that the eerie cloud is never explained. Fifties audiences would no doubt have read it as fallout from an atomic test, but it gains in power from not having such a standard diagnosis applied. Kind of like the way NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD offers a bogus sci-fi explanation for zombie-ism, but Romero’s sequels gain power by walking it back and leaving the plague a mystery.

The next few brief scenes show Williams very gradually coming to suspect what’s up with him. This is where Matheson worried that the film would be boring, and was annoyed that his idea of presenting the narrative out of chronological order was rejected. I don’t want to say that Matheson was wrong — we don’t have his version of the film to judge, though we do have his novel, which Fiona has read and admired (“There’s much MORE, including sexual stuff.“) — but I think the version we have works like gangbusters, partly BECAUSE of the very linear structure. Though the cloud’s appearance in the titles, and then minutes later in the first scene, suggest a film looping back on itself, the rest of the story has a rare and powerful inexorability, the drip-drip of a problem getting steadily, catastrophically worse. I think it would lose all that, plus the surprise value of discovering each stage of our man’s diminution as it occurs.

(Matheson also objected to the catchpenny title: “They didn’t think a shrinking man was incredible enough.” But I guess a bit of circus barker ballyhoo is not inappropriate here…)

Maybe the filmmakers were worried that the early stages would be slow, though, because they ramp up the pace as best they can, getting to the point where special effects are required ASAP, so that each scene will have some element of the visual uncanny. So that now the eye and mind have plenty to boggle at, be in split-screen effects that show a diminished Williams facing a normal-sized Stuart, or Williams grappling with out-sized props. The early stages of the sickness call to mind Herzog’s “explanation” of EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL — imagine the world has grown gigantic overnight so we must clumsily struggle to interact with our once-familiar objects.

Williams is outstanding. Like Arnold’s filming style, his slight blandness is appropriate to this tale of the monstrous-domestic. And he has the acting chops to produce credible angst: Lee Strasberg training and all that. Fiona also remarks on his mellifluous voice, a boon for the film’s last half, when our hero has no dialogue but keeps in touch with us via his philosophical voice-over.

We all know our cats would eat us if they could.

The incremental nature of the plot doesn’t become tiresome, because although it literally is one damn thing after another, we have the false hope of the treatment that briefly halts our hero’s shrinkage, the brief, tentative quasi-romance with the “circus midget” (censorship prevents any hint of dinky hanky-panky, leaving the viewer to make up their own deleted scenes in their own filthy imagination) and two types of terror-suspense. There’s the inexorable existential threat of shrinking to nothingness, which there seems to be no protection from, leaving us to worry about what can possibly resolve this story, apart from DEATH — and there’s the incidental threats encountered along with way, which kick in when the movie’s most distinguished cast member, Orangey the cat (immersing himself in the role of Butch), stops seeing Little Grant as his lord and Kibble-dispenser, and starts seeing him as a potentially tasty snacklet.

Orangey, another Stanislavskian player whose work is always totally real, has major roles in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (the nameless role of “Cat” is more significant than it sounds), THE COMEDY OF TERRORS (written by Matheson, who must have admired his work here: he provided a drag role, as Cleopatra), and another fifties sci-fi job, THIS ISLAND EARTH (as Neutron — not sure when I saw that one, but probably within a year of my 1974 annus mirabilis). Plus more giantism in Bert I. Gordon’s VILLAGE OF THE GIANTS, in the rather crudely-sketched role of “giant cat.”

Fiona asked me if I’d ever screen this film for students. I might. I did recently recommend it to one, because of its ending. I could certainly see myself screening one of the beautifully designed suspense sequences. Novice screenwriters tend to think in terms of overall story and dialogue, not realising that planning the details of a story’s action is a huge part of the job, more important than mere LINES. The what-happens-ness of a story. How each occurrence can move the dial from Happy to Sad. Breaking down the ISM’s titanic struggle with a mousetrap or a house spider, showing how clarity of action and planning and the interruption of surprise reversals makes an audience emote, would be just as useful as looking at Hitchcock. The fact that we are never quite unaware of the matte lines, process screens, and scaled-up sets, and yet we respond viscerally and emotionally to each victory and defeat, teaches an important lesson, if I could but put it into words.

Maybe it’s Michael Powell’s “There is no such thing as realism in the cinema.” Or maybe it’s that the Brechtian verfremdungseffekt is the bunk — we can be quite aware that we’re watching a film, and still be caught up in the drama. That’s why reminding the audience of the fakery is only worth doing if you can make a good joke of it. Because we always know it’s not real. But for it to work, we have to believe that simultaneously it IS real, somehow.

Down, down, down. Our hero the ISM is banished to the basement by his cat, presumed dead by his wife and brother, the house now a vast wilderness of predators and perils, food scarce and escape impossible. Arnold, director of TARANTULA (NOT such a distinguished movie), trots out his signature arachnid to do battle with our man. I guess we have to admit, one spider was probably harmed during the making of this film. I’d love to believe it was tenderly chloroformed and revived with a cup of tea and a biscuit, but I fear the worst.

And what of the ISM himself? He slays the spider, and finally escapes the basement by dwindling until he can fit through the mesh of the screen window — the first time his tininess has been of benefit to him. Out in the garden, surrounded by more threats, he delivers a beautiful parting VO that totally collapsed my seven-year-old mind to a singularity and then exploded it, a primal atom, into a Universal-International Cloud of Unknowing.


“So close… the infinitesimal and the infinite. But suddenly I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet, like the closing of a gigantic circle. I looked up as if somehow I would grasp the heavens. The universe. Worlds beyond number. God’s silver tapestry spread across the night. 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. I still exist.

Note the obligatory reference to the deity.

But WHAT DOES IT MEAN? Little Fiona asked her mum, in Dundee. Little Me asked my dad in Edinburgh. Neither parent could really explain it. It was Beyond Mums and Dads. Years later I saw some minor celebrity, I forget who, discussing the impression the film made on them as a kid. “I was terrified. I kept saying, ‘He’s going to die, isn’t he? And in the end he does.” But does he? This was the challenge. He “melts away” to “nothing” but “still exists.” I think my Dad suggested he had become subatomic, although in “reality” it would take him a while to get that small — he looks to be maybe ant-sized when he leaves the house — and it’s not clear that he could ever be that small — what’ he made of, if he becomes smaller than an atom? I don’t know when an ISM would become too small to be complex enough to function as a human being, but part of the beauty of the film’s ABC structure is that the incredible aspect comes on gradually, like a tall tale (ironically enough)… “Do you believe me so far? How about now? How about NOW?”

I get the impression kids are quite literal-minded. I certainly could be. I was a pedantic little swine. But here was an ending that couldn’t be reduced to one literal meaning. Grant Williams was, like Schrodinger’s cat, both dead and alive.

“I still exist.” — and then THE END comes up SO FAST, rushing you out of the movie, back into Life, with so many questions…


13 Responses to “Tomorrowsday #2: Incredible Shrinking Man, I Love You”

  1. Thank you, David. A lovely piece on this marvellous film. It’s always seemed to me it ought to have been shot in 3D. I say so because my computer monitor is a 3D one. On playing Shrinking Man it produces a pseudo 3D image that’s quite impressive. As they have recently produced a 3D version of The Wizard of Oz then it must be possible to re-do the Jack Arnold film. But sales might be a lot smaller. But we do have the 2D mavel film that’s an SF masterpiece. Matheson’s novel is excellent – containing some risque material that wasn’t filmable in the 1950s. I am sending on my e-mail address as it would be good (if you don’t mind) to include you on my list of subscribers to my film reviews on the Filmuforia website. It’s Do get in touch and I’l share my latest review of Asquith’s Shooting Stars – a terrific film. Best wishes, Alan

  2. I trust you’re aware of J.G. Ballard’s exceedingly high regard for this film. Also Grant Williams plays the gas station service man Dorothy Malone picks up in “Written on the Wind”

  3. Yes, Williams had brushes with greater fame. No shrinking while Dorothy’s around.

    There’s a big Ballard connection in one of my upcoming follow-up posts on Grant Williams…

    I think they might have struggled to make this film in 3D because of the special effects. Rear projection and matting would both be highly problematic: even the limited process shots in Creature from the Black Lagoon, when they’re on the boat with flat jungle sliding past, are a touch disappointing.

    As for 3D refits, I’m against them. I want to see the film as close as possible to how it looked when it came out. If the director didn’t have 3D in mind, I’m not interested — and I love 3D.

  4. Jeff Gee Says:

    At some point, he’s going to suffocate, no? When you’re smaller than an oxygen atom, what are you breathing?

  5. When you’re smaller than an atom, WHAT ARE YOU MADE OF?

  6. Jeff Gee Says:

    Little teen-tiny atoms? In the novelization of “Fantastic Voyage,” Isaac Asimov tries to make sense of the shrinking ray. Either you’re getting smaller because you’re shedding atoms, or because the atoms themselves are getting smaller, and if the former, it’s difficult to see how you could get the atoms back in place in order to return to normal size, so he goes with the second option. He also concludes that the submarine (or its atoms) would continue to revert to normal size even though it had been destroyed by the white blood cells (ditto Donald Pleasence) so the chomped up sub is removed via a tear drop. I forget how the remains of DP are dealt with, but I am certain they were.

  7. JG: Since Pleasance was in the sub, his remains were removed with the teardrop. I read Asimov’s book first; when I finally caught the movie it struck me as considerably dumber.

    By way of contrast, “Ant Man” and upcoming sequel reduce it to one more gimmick in the superhero toy box. The Michael Douglas character clung to a thoroughly irrational belief that his wife was still alive and findable at the subatomic level. “Innerspace” was less about scifi than the idea of Martin Short being controlled by a little man inside. And Lily Tomlin’s semi-official version was flat out broad satire.

    Anecdote I read somewhere: To make giant dripping water, they filled condoms and had them rolling off a sort of conveyor belt. The director claimed that when studio accountants questioned the mass purchase of condoms, he told them they had a party for the crew.

  8. The condom-drips are terrific! You can’t really solve the water problem in pre-CGI cinema, but this solution came close.

    There’s also Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, which doesn’t worry its pretty head about science too much. But does give some idea of what awaits the ISM out in his garden lawn.

  9. “Honey, I Shrunk the Audience” was an attraction at the theme parks for some years. Yes, that’s Eric Idle as the emcee.

    The 3D effects were actually very persuasive, enhanced with seat movement, wind from propellers, and simulated mice brushing against your legs.

  10. I don’t pay good money to have simulated mice brushed against my legs.

    I get enough of that at home.

    I was offended that they didn’t have the nerve to call the sequel Honey, I Blew Up the Baby. If they couldn’t call it that, they should have called it Honey, I Shrunk Everybody and Everything Apart from the Baby.

  11. Jeff Gee Says:

    In the state of New Jersey, every “U” and “P” had been stolen from every marquee showing “HONEY, I BLEW UP THE KIDS” by the time it had been in release for 36 hours.

  12. Turning it into a Michael Jackson biopic.

    Old joke: Michael Jackson is taking his family to Florida. He’s off to Tampa with the kids.

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