A classic of 1950s sci-fi existentialism and a staple of late-night tv in the 80s and 90s, this is every bit as tense and wonderful as you remember it.
Scott Carey (Williams) is sunning himself on a boat when he is enshrouded by a strange glittery mist. Six months later he’s starting to shrink and it’s putting a strain on his perfect marriage to Louise (Stuart). The doctors can’t do anything for him, so Scott is increasingly left a captive in his own, perfect Eisenhower Years home. And, as he gets smaller and smaller, even mod cons and home comforts become sources of threat and danger.
I used to love this film for its ruminative voiceover, which explicitly poses questions of identity, the continuity of being and our place in the cosmos; while implicitly reflecting the crisis of masculinity triggered by the economic miracle of 50s USA and the dream of perfect lives it conjured up.
Now, it seems to me that it’s the ‘scaled-up’ (or is that ‘scaled-down’?) action sequences that are at the heart of the film. In these, the diminished Scott must solve the physical problems posed by household objects like a match, a box, a stick that’s been used to stir gloss paint, a big spider or a pet cat to whom Scott is now a mouse on two legs.
They’re great fun and still very exciting to watch. There’s a quiet intensity and focus to these sequences, despite the macho survivalist tone in the accompanying voiceover, making the film a distant, shlocky cousin to Bresson’s A Man Escaped from the previous year.
Richard Matheson’s script (from his own wonderful novel, which emphasises the sexual tensions in Scott’s predicament rather more) is one of the other great elements here; it outlines Scott and Louise’s relationship with concision and stays focused until Matheson lets loose with the cosmic philosophising at the end of the film.
Before he rediscovers himself as a man of action and starts fighting it out with cats and spiders, trying to avoid storm drains, Williams’ plays the dissatisfied Young American perfectly, transforming from sturdy male to querulous teenager and even gaunt androgyne. There’s a touching, nicely acted sequence in which he befriends Clarice (Kent – a non-dwarf actor), a dwarf working as a sideshow freak. It’s a pity Grant Williams didn’t get more good roles in big films in his relatively short career.
The presentation is ‘high definition’, although that has the unfortunate result of making the superimposed images (usually of the shrunken Scott) look very superimposed, translucent and unnatural indeed. That’s a big technical irony but it doesn’t detract from what is still a great film that, like Don Quixote, needs to be experienced at least thrice: in youth, middle age and dotage.
The Incredible Shrinking Man is out on Blu-ray on 13 November.