January 11, 2009

Atomic Age Master - Jack Arnold

Directed by Jack Arnold
Grant Williams – Robert Scott Carey
Randy Stuart – Louise Carey
Paul Langton – Charlie Carey
April Kent – Clarice
Raymond Bailey – Dr. Thomas Silver
I can’t remember when I first saw this picture, not in specific terms. I just remember seeing it and being very moved by it. What is striking to me about this picture is that I have never met an American over the age of 30 who has not seen it and doesn’t remember it with a marked, enthusiastic fondness. Also, everyone I have spoken to about it remembers having first seen it when they were “very young” possibly “twelve or thirteen.” I include myself in this survey.

I take this to mean two things: first, everyone concerned remembers encountering the film in their youth – in a period when things were fresh and clear; and two, folks have come to associate the picture with their youth, when the noble and idealistic stirrings produced by the picture could be felt with hope – a sensation difficult to experience as one ages. Yet we cherish the memory of youth, and thus by association, we cherish this film.

Speaking for myself, I still think of Robert Carey, filled with his inevitable doom, fighting on with a sewing needle, wearing tatters of cloth that wouldn’t cover a penny, as an inspired statement about the innate, blind courage of mankind. And his final walk out into the stars, well, I have always felt Carey was then beyond courage, beyond even wisdom or sacrifice; taking steps into Heaven or Oneness. This is weighty stuff for a B Sci-Fi flick from the 1950s with a tiny budget and a cast of no-names. Yet it is this swinging-for-the-fences philosophy that is so admirable about the movie, and so unique.

Grant Williams and Randy Stuart
The story is direct and simple: Robert and Louise Carey are vacationing on a brother’s cabin cruiser, lollygagging around on deck in the sun, completely happy, married, and in love. Louise goes below deck to get hubby a beer, and Robert notices a large, white cloud moving swiftly over the water. He stands up as if to face it and it rolls over the boat. Something in the cloud has covered his body in a coating of sparkly flakes, which he is busy brushing it off as Louise pops back up on deck. “Look at your chest,” says Louise, and passes Robert a towel, looking concerned.

It was, of course, a radioactive cloud (produced, perhaps, by the testing at Bikini Atoll?), and Robert has been covered with fallout (for a 1950s view of fallout, please have a peek at the short films included under the profile). The effects of this fallout stay dormant for six months until Robert is accidentally exposed to a pesticide, and the two agents combine to produce physical shrinking. Robert will shrink away into the atoms of the air, but it is his rich journey into non-existence, and all his surreal experiences along the way, that make for a more than satisfying eighty-one minutes.

Grant Williams
The script is by Richard Matheson, based on his short story, The Shrinking Man. Over the years, Matheson’s stature has deservedly risen, and he has produced a ton of great work as a novelist and as a script writer since the mid 1950s. As a novelist/short story writer working in sci-fi and fantasy, his catalog of classic work includes, I am Legend, What Dreams May Come, Somewhere in Time, and many more. Many of these have been turned into feature films, most notably I am Legend. Hollywood has taken a crack at it three times with The Last Man on Earth (1964), The Omega Man (1971), and I am Legend (2007). There probably wasn’t a television show in the 1950s that Matheson didn’t write scripts for. I could go on (easily) but you get the point. It is Matheson that must be given credit for the grandiose wind-up of the picture in which the Carey voiceover explains that he now recognizes his worth to God, even as his corporal body is atomizing, and his life will never end, just change. His body and soul is joining the cosmos, the stars. It is this “sense of wonder;” this writing with epic ambitions, that has endeared the picture to viewers since its release.

The direction comes courtesy of Jack Arnold, who was at the helm for some the greatest sci-fi classics of the era, including, Creature From The Black Lagoon, It Came From Outer Space, Tarantula, The Monolith Monsters, This Island Earth, and Monster On Campus. Arnold worked in the genre, and with restrictive budgets, enough for his sci-fi work to have a distinctive style and “touch.”

He was a master at staging a shot for maximum effect. Take for example the scene when Robert’s brother, Charlie, stops by the house to tell Robert that a) he is fired (Robert works for Charlie’s advertising firm) and b) since someone at Charlie’s firm has blabbed about Robert’s condition to a reporter (obviously Charlie himself), why not sell the story, turn yourself into a freak, and make a bundle? Throughout the scene we see Charlie, who is clearly the Alpha ass-hole of the two brothers and de-facto man of the house; pacing the living room, while Louise, who is getting mousier and older with each passing scene, is sitting like a hostage victim in a chair stroking the pet cat. Throughout the scene there is a feeling of tension, even dread, produced by Arnold’s clever staging: the camera is looking up from an unnaturally low angle, just behind a chair, so that Charlie is talking down at the chair.

Randy Stuart and Paul Langton(Charlie)
While Charlie blathers on (I mean, really, the man has just shit-canned his own brother because, well, being so teeny and all, he can’t keep his clients anymore, as well as all but told Robert if he doesn’t sell his freak story, he will) Louise sits very quietly. There is also something slightly upsetting in Louise’s prim passiveness. She simply watches Charlie with something like shame on her face as she strokes the cat. What is she ashamed off? Charlie, you son of a bitch, any thoughts? The staging suggests a couple talking to a child we can’t see. “Charlie, No!” says Louise to Charlie’s sordid suggestion of a book deal. Charlie becomes sulky and huffy, “well, at least think about it,” he says, not understanding at all he has added to his brother’s misery tremendously. The camera cuts suddenly to a very small - somehow hideously small - Robert, sitting in a chair like a straight-legged doll, while Charlie is so huge we see only the corner of his shoulder. In fact, as Robert wiggles his feet slightly, we notice he is dressed in a child’s clothes, all of it slightly oversized at that. Now the camera is looking down, way down, from a perspective over Charlie’s massive shoulder. A single, discordant blast of strings plays for background music, and we see, way down there, Robert’s black eyes looking up at us. In one powerful shot, we realize Robert’s torture, and his doom, like a kick to the stomach.

The scene has tremendous impact, pulling us directly into Robert’s suffering and, yes, our own shock and repulsion at the sight of him. This excellent sense of drama, this crystalization of a moment of tension, is typical of Arnold’s work of the period, and can be seen to great effect in any of the films mentioned above. In many similar moments in an Arnold film, we can feel him guiding us along, as though down a dimly lit alley, until he suddenly baths light on something monstrous. Arnold was also a fabulous storyteller with film, a quality that really comes to the fore once Robert Carey is banished into the basement.

A terrified retreat from the house cat (a particularly mangy looking beast, who was an actual ‘feline actor” named “Orangey”) has sent Robert tumbling ass over tea-kettle into a rag basket in the basement, where his fight for survival truly begins. Here, Carey will prove his mettle while struggling to wrestle a bit of cheese from a mouse-trap, nearly drown as the hot water heater floods the basement (which also nearly obliterates his matchbox dwelling), have to scale the mountain of a workbench with a bent needle and thread for a piece of cake, and most famously, enter into battle with a spider like one of Arthur’s knights facing a dragon.

This sequence of film is Arnold’s masterwork. It has the pure celluloid storytelling of Chaplin’s City Lights, and like Chaplin’s work, requires no words at all. It does have some narration, some of which is magical, but the film, from the moment Carey is completely abandoned by Louise and that swine of a brother, Charlie (who can’t sell the house and whisk Louise out of it fast enough) to the final credits, the picture requires nothing to tell the tale but Arnold’s brilliant film-making. I have read that Orson Welles was a fan of the picture, and I would bet dollars to doughnuts this portion of the film was what cemented his approval (Welles was working at universal the same time as The Incredible Shrinking Man was made, working on his own film, Touch of Evil, and did the voiceover for the trailer).

Over fifty years later, the special effects still are thrilling and completely convincing (in your face CGI!). The models created had to demonstrate Cary’s shrinking though many different stages, and there is a uniform quality and seamlessness that is mind-boggling. From giant needles, nails, and pencils; to chairs, telephones, coffee cups and sugar dispensers, none of it looks cheap or artificial. My particular favorite is the mousetrap, which is 100% scary and filled with a kind of spring tension that perfectly captures the real thing. It isn’t only the sublime quality and craftsmanship of the models, either, but also Arnolds brilliant use of camera angles as well as the use of sound. During the course of the picture, we hear Carey’s voice changing. At first we notice a certain tinny quality, a thinness of timbre, until eventually his voice sounds like the whine of a mosquito which no one can hear (particularly heart wrenching is the scene where Carey is shouting at Louise, who is right above him on the stairs of the basement, cupping his hands and screaming for all he’s worth, “Louise! Louise, please look for me! Louise!”).

the water heater flood
The performances are excellent throughout as well, most obvious, of course, is the moving performance by Grant Williams as Robert Scott Carey. Williams had an Alan Ladd quality and was signed by Universal, groomed for stardom, but never quite got there. But then, with this performance, he achieved something far more lasting than stardom, which, after all, is frighteningly transitory. His performance here is terribly moving and he is very good throughout. A true gem of a performance, though, is one that is seldom noted by reviewers: that of Randy Stuart as Louise Carey. Consider the changes that occur through the course of the film to the Louise character. In the opening sequences, she is a young, nubile wife, full of youth and life, playing flirty games with her handsome husband under the sun. As the movie progresses and her husband’s torment begins and intensifies, she ages and withers before our eyes, struggling mightily to be strong as Robert Carey becomes a little monster in his anguish, a verbal tyrant at 36 inches.

Louise is no longer playful, to say the least, and her façade of normalcy is palpable in its anguish. By the time swaggering Charlie begins running the show, she is nearly comatose – pale and drawn so that each breath seems pained. The final stage of this marvelous performance begins when she finally is able to accept that her husband is gone. She has found the bloody remnants of Robert's thumb-sized clothes, and she has seen the vile creature, Orangey, licking it’s hideous chops. She is hustled through any denial period by the loathsome Charlie ("We’ve looked everywhere,” says Charlie helpfully when Louise demonstrates reluctance to give up the search. “He’s dead. He was my brother. Do you think I could say it if it wasn’t true? You saw the cat.”). Finally, in Stuart’s last scene when all hope is finally abandoned, Louise is no longer drawn, is maybe even beautiful again. Put she is no longer young. And she is no longer soft or nubile. As she and Charlie prepare to leave the house and pull out of the driveway one last time, Charlie, who has been collecting odds and ends in preparation for the sale of the house, says, “Is that everything, Louise?” Louise isn’t looking at him; is instead staring 1,000 miles straight ahead. “Yes,” she says, in a voice that could freeze steel, “that’s everything.”

Yes, that's everything
Finally, then, we come back around to Matheson and his script. Much has been rightfully made of the final narration in the film, where the vanishing Carey speaks about his final spiritual breakthrough (. . .all this vast majesty of creation – it had to mean something, and then I meant something, too . . .). It is indeed simply beautiful in accompaniment to Arnold’s final long, long pullback; from Carey looking star ward, to the lawn, to the planet, to the solar system, etc, etc.

The bit of writing I remember best, though, was when the starving, quickly weakening Carey, nearing the end, regains his needle after the water heater flood has swept him far from his dwelling; and he makes a final vow: “I still had my weapons. With these bits of metal I was a man again. If I was to die, it would not be as a helpless insect in the jaws of the Spider Monster. A strange calmness possessed me. I thought more clearly than I had ever thought before; as if my mind were bathed in a brilliant light.”

With these bits of metal I was a man again
Carey has been reduced to instinct, and his instinct is to fight, to never be helpless, to never, ever give up.

So, I would advise you to see this film, but really, I will only hope that you watch it again and every year or so after, as I do. Because, after all, I am sure you have already seen it. I am sure you saw it when you were twelve or maybe thirteen; when you were very young. –Radiation Cinema


  1. I CAN remember when I first saw this film - it was a couple of months ago. I had to review it for the book 101 Sci Fi Movies You Must See Before You Die (terrible book - don't bother). I'd never watched it before because, God help me, I thought it just looked silly. I was blown away by it. A really thoughtful, moving, powerful film... about a guy that gets all little and fights bugs.
    And what an ending!

  2. Matthew: I tried (and probably failed) to resist gushing too much about this film in my post, but I'll tear loose here. This is the film that initiated my love for 1950's sci fi. It left a tremendous impression on me as a boy, an experience I'm afraid I have projected onto the entire movie-going world. I flat loved this movie and for me it defined that elusive “sense of wonder” good sci-fi is renowned for. The beauty part is, it still holds up into my adult (and then some) years. How many things in life can we say that about? -- Mykal

  3. The Incredible Shrinking Man is definitely in my top ten films of the 1950's. What a fantastic movie of set pieces/character pieces (not unlike The Last Man on Earth).

    I read Matheson's story before seeing the film, and it absolutely lived up to what I hoped it would be.

  4. Warfreak: You are the first person I know of that has read the short story before seeing the picture. I am glad it lived up to the story. I bet because Matheson did the script as well. Thanks for chiming in. This is one of the core films that made me love sci-fi from this era and you are so right about the sets and props used. -- Mykal

  5. I saw this classic sci-fi film in a theater during the 60s. Once the adventures in the basement start - the tarantula, the flood - this film is epic. I think they're doing a remake down the road - not that any remake could displace my appreciation for this movie.

  6. Hokahey: Couldn't agree with you more. Epic it certainy is. I'll have to keep my eye out for the remake, but, as you say, nothing can equal the original. Might be one of those remakes doomed right out of the starting gate. -- Mykal