The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

“So close, the infinitesimal and the infinite.”

Scott Carey (Grant Williams) is enjoying a sunny afternoon on a boat with his wife, Louise (Randy Stuart). When Louise heads into the cabin to get a couple of drinks, Scott is troubled to see a large cloud moving over the surface of the water toward the boat. It engulfs the boat, but passes just as Louise emerges from the cabin. Scott is left covered in a mysterious, sparkling powder.

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(Image via The Telltale Mind)

No harm done, though, apparently. Six months later, Scott and Louise are carrying on with life as usual… until he begins to notice that his clothes are too big, and getting bigger every day.

The Careys’ usual physician can’t explain why Scott seems to be losing weight, and getting shorter. After several visits over a few weeks confirm that it isn’t all in Scott’s imagination, he’s referred to the California Medical Research Institute.

At the Institute, Dr. Thomas Silver (Raymond Bailey) discovers that the problem was caused by a mix of radioactive exposure (that cloud on the water) and exposure to a certain insecticide which was sprayed in the Careys’ neighborhood. Now that they know the cause, can an antidote be found before Scott shrinks to microscopic size?

The Incredible Shrinking Man was directed by Jack Arnold. The screenplay was written by Richard Matheson, from his own novel.

This is the exact type of underrated, brilliant sci-fi flick I was hoping to discover when I added “The Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection” to my DVD shelves. From the opening credits — which feature the shrinking silhouette of a man, with a growing radiation cloud in the background — I knew I was going to be in for a lot of fun with this film.

There is certainly fun to be had here. Scott’s shrinking brings all of the dangers you’d expect. A media frenzy ensues. Stairs suddenly become impossible to climb. Some monster movie fun is brought in through Scott’s encounters with a spider (which is now as large to him as the Empire State Building once was) and with the family cat.

So much of the film provokes thought, too, however. None of Scott’s struggles are unexpected given the film’s premise, but the script devotes itself to his psychology with such sincerity that the film grips the viewer, and is surprisingly emotional.

We watch Scott be forced to sell his story and give in to the media circus in order to provide for his family. We watch him go into survival mode after becoming trapped in the cellar, living off of a water drip from the water heater and making a home out of a matchbox. All of this broke my heart a little bit — especially that scene in which his hard-won bread crumb from the mouse trap tumbles down the drain! It seems silly when written out, but the film does a great job of making Scott’s unusual situation feel very real, and at times intense.

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(Image via Canon Movies)

Of course, a fear of radioactivity and chemicals also plays into the film, as it did for many sci-fi films of this period. The fact that Scott was able to be exposed to such a destructive blend of chemicals in the first place is startlingly plausible. The scene of the radioactive cloud overtaking the boat is brilliant. So simple, but so eerie!

Beyond its effective storytelling and strong performances, the effects throughout the film also sell the viewer on Scott’s struggle. I’m not sure exactly which techniques were used to make Scott appear to small in relation to his environment, but I can only think of one scene in which they weren’t convincing.

And on top of all of that, the ending of this film does exactly what I hoped it would, leaving things somewhat unresolved. The ending only elevated my already-high opinion of the film. Props to director Jack Arnold for convincing the studio not to ruin the film by giving Scott a clean cure and a happy ending!

The Incredible Shrinking Man gets a strong recommendation from me. It’s a well-made film which handles its subject matter quite seriously, but without ruining the sense of sci-fi fun. It’s a bit paranoid, a bit psychological, a bit philosopical… and it’s a must-watch in my book!

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6 thoughts on “The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

  1. The special effects! This probably had the same impact as watching Avatar or Star Wars in the theaters for the first time…. the shear visual impact.

    I remember so few details — I saw it at least two decades ago. Thank you for the review.

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  2. I’d be curious what the one scene is where you felt the effects didn’t work. I can think of two places, quite close together. The first is where Scott “runs into the night” and is seen approaching a full-sized person on the street. As he approaches, he becomes much smaller (diminishing with his distance from the camera) until he seems much shorter compared to his surroundings than he has been established to be. A bit later, when he meets Clarice in the coffee shop, there’s an interaction between her and an actual midget (Billy Curtis) that emphasizes the fact that she is not proportioned like a natural midget and also the eye lines don’t work.

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    1. The first one you mention didn’t stand out to me, but I did notice the second. (Clarice in general was kind of odd to me — the fact that she was clearly an average-sized actress took me out of her scenes a little bit haha.) In the scene I was thinking of when I wrote my review, he was standing at the top of the cellar stairs and you could see right through his legs.

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