A paranoia fantasy that exploits masculine insecurity for its effects, The Incredible Shrinking Man is the strangest, the most ambitious (both conceptually and technically) and perhaps the finest of Jack Arnold’s era-defining sci-fi movies.
It is best remembered, of course, for its special effects and suspense sequences as the miniature Grant Williams battles spiders, mousetraps and other enlarged household perils, but the film is artfully structured and written (by Richard Matheson, from his novel) so that the mayhem only begins after a cerebral first half, slowly and clinically detailing Williams’s mounting anguish as his condition becomes apparent.
Despite his wife’s continued affection, he is unable to accept her unconditional support; this leads to an unexpected subplot in which he begins a chaste relationship with Clarice, a midget employed as a sideshow attraction (played by actress April Kent on enlarged sets). Her optimistic nature briefly reconciles him to his condition, but even her empathy proves insufficient the moment he discovers that he has become a little smaller than her. These sequences play artfully on male fears of emasculation and the preoccupation with physical stature: Williams is the same man (the shrinking does not affect his mental capabilities or personality), but his notion of masculine status denies him the ability to come to terms with what he has become: “The incredible shrinking freak… one more joke for the world to laugh at!”
Even today, the audience laughter that greets the first scenes of him perched on seat cushions or struggling to lift the telephone receiver with both hands is most likely to be of the nervous variety, and soon silenced as the narrative unfolds.
It is at this point that Matheson and Arnold turn the screw, and Williams’s nightmare moves from the conceptual to the physical, commencing with the superb image of him opening his dolls’ house front door to be confronted by the massive, squealing face of the family cat, and continuing to a series of perils culminating in a nail-biting life or death struggle with a marauding spider.
The film’s biggest surprise is its cosmic finale, in which Williams, suddenly free of fear and hunger, shrinks from microscopic to atomic, finally dissipating into the atmosphere, possessed of consciousness still, but no physical dimensions whatever, his first person narration concluding: “… and in that moment I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite… that existence begins and ends is man’s conception, not nature’s.”
This thrilling, disquieting and hugely inventive film remains one of the highest achievements of fifties science fiction.