They called them “B-Movies,” genre films (westerns, noir, horror, sci-fi, etc.) made on shoestring budgets with leads played by actors, not stars, and directors who were journeymen, not auteurs. The 1950s were their heyday and they played great on a rainy Saturday afternoon.
They looked disposable then, but watching them now, these movies are historical and cultural artifacts of a time passed. Depicting not just how people talked, dressed and decorated their homes, but how they felt and what they feared. They are windows into the past, an education of a generation.
Of the movies from this era, few are as entertaining and impressive as Jack Arnold’s 1957, The Incredible Shrinking Man. Adapted from Richard Matheson’s novel by the same name, The Incredible Shrinking Man follows Scott Carey (Grant Williams), an average 1950s Los Angeles husband, who abruptly and tragically begins to shrink — both in weight and height — into baggier clothes and an uncertain future.
The doctors assumed that the cause of Carey’s shrinking is due to exposure to radioactivity — from an unusual cloud that passed by Carey while he was sunbathing — and the doctors aren’t sure if the effects are reversible. They try a radical treatment, but to no avail, and Carey continues to shrink. Carey loses his job, and has to exploit his predicament for money, further emasculating himself in front of his wife, growing smaller before her very eyes.
The Incredible Shrinking Man is a marvel of cinematic technique and perspective. Visualizing Carey growing smaller and smaller shows how adept Arnold was with a camera and cinematic trickery: forced perspective, oversized sets, depth of field are all used to diminish Carey into the suburban background, but it isn’t until the third act, when Carey is roughly an inch-and-a-half tall, that the movie truly exploits its premise. Trapped in his own basement, Carey has to find food, survive a leaky water heater and battle a large spider. With every action, every successful step forward, Carey becomes more and more confident that no matter how small in stature he becomes, he will never vanish, he will never disappear and he will always matter.
The 1950s was a difficult time for American filmmakers. Both HUAC (the House of Un-American Activities Committee) and the Hayes Code shackled Hollywood from saying what they really wanted to, but those limitations led to some creative explorations of the forbidden topics. Here, Carey describes his impending battle with the spider:
“My enemy seemed immortal. It was every unknown terror in the world. Every fear, fused into one hideous night-black horror.”
Could Carey be describing Communism and the Red Scare? Possibly. Could he be describing the fear of complacency and sameness bore from the rise of the suburbs? Yes, that too. But what makes The Incredible Shrinking Man endure is not the journey through Carey’s fears, but the transformative quality that journey provides. The knowledge that no matter how small something is, it never disappears, it never diminishes, it never ceases to exist.