Scott Carey and his wife Louise are sunning themselves on their cabin cruiser, the small craft adrift on a calm sea. While his wife is below deck, a low mist passes over him. Scott, lying in the sun, is sprinkled with glittery particles that quickly evaporate. Later he is accidentally sprayed with an insecticide while driving and, in the next few days, he finds that he has begun to shrink. First just a few inches, so that his clothes no longer fit, then a little more. Soon he is only three feet tall, and a national curiosity. At six inches tall he can only live in a doll's house and even that becomes impossible when his cat breaks in. Scott flees to the cellar, his wife thinks he has been eaten by the cat and the door to the cellar is closed, trapping him in the littered room where, menaced by a giant spider, he struggles to survive. Written by
Even though the spider in this film is clearly a tarantula, the spider is shown sitting in a standard type spider web. Tarantulas do not build webs like that. They live in burrows or holes. See more »
[closing soliloquy narration]
I was continuing to shrink, to become... what? The infinitesimal? What was I? Still a human being? Or was I the man of the future? If there were other bursts of radiation, other clouds drifting across seas and continents, would other beings follow me into this vast new world? 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 ...
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It is a truism that America in the 1950s was a conformist, cowed kind of country. Social criticism was suspect, potentially un-American. Hollywood had to convey its messages in the guise of sci-fi or historical analogy.
This spare, cheap, black-and-white film, starring unknowns, has the ruthless, unswerving narrative drive of an arrow into a bullseye. No subplots, no diversions: nothing but the examination of what it is like to lose *everything*, to be stripped not only of the material consolations of conformity but the emotional insulation of marriage and friendship.
"Shrinking"-- the MacGuffin of a nuclear cloud means nothing-- is a visual metaphor for exile and disillusionment. The hero becomes an outcast by becoming progressively more freakish until he is invisible, or at any rate irretrievable. Yet every stage of deprivation has its consolations. Once he falls through the floor, he escapes the attentions of the pruriently curious and the need to pay his way by performing for them; and although at first the grille in the cellar is like the barred window of a prison, shrinking further means he can squeeze through and leave the fearsome cat trapped behind.
All this is very American in its qualified optimism, and very characteristic of Richard Matheson's imagination as one of the great popular mythmakers of mid-century. Not for him the easy slither into plastic angst. Scott Carey's reversion to the primitive-- long hair, needle-sword, ragged robes-- mocks his former status but also looks forward to the hippie protagonists who would soon reject social norms and carve out their own psychic territory. Carey's resourcefulness and refusal to be daunted are the qualities of a pioneer.
One incident sums up Matheson's brilliant integration of narrative detail and philosophical meaning. After being diagnosed, Carey and his wife swear they will stay true to each other, come what may. He leans forward to start the car and the wedding ring rolls off his finger. It sounds like a lumberingly "symbolic" moment, something out of Iris Murdoch... only it isn't. His finger has shrunk, and shrinking is what the movie is all about. Accept the premise, and all that flows out of it fits it.
"The Incredible Shrinking Man" is an adventure story and a fable about how little it takes to stay alive, seamlessly sewn together. It is one of the works that put Matheson (and Rod Serling) up with Wells, Verne and Conan Doyle. Literary professors now give the Europeans serious attention. When will the American dream-weavers get their due?
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