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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Incredibly Unsettling Shrinking Man

There used to be a cat in the yard that I shared with a neighbor. We’d take turns feeding it, which sometimes yielded four or so meals a day. Being a natural predator, T.C. (their name for him --- mine was Satan) would drag his belly over the grass in search of yet more food, usually field mice. On one occasion, I watched T.C./Satan presiding over the slow death of a rodent he captured in the yard, knowing full well that were I shrunken to that diminutive size, the cat I served each day would unhesitatingly feed upon me. In short, I would become Scott Carey! The frightful image of a tiny man fleeing his own ravenous pet has endured in the hearts and minds of all those who saw The Incredible Shrinking Man at an impressionable age. I had lunch last week with a longtime friend who is now a District Court Judge. He experienced Shrinking Man the same day as I, in July of 1964, on a double bill with Jack The Giant Killer at our Liberty Theatre. His recall of a Saturday so many years ago, and details he related, confirmed this as having been the most horrific movie encounter that six-year-old ever had. For myself, ten at the time, The Incredible Shrinking Man touched nerves hitherto impervious to Konga, Tarantula, or even The Amazing Colossal Man, for this was clearly science-fiction not to be laughed at. I was quite unprepared for Shrinking Man's sobering finish. This may have been the first occasion for my generation to ponder larger life issues as Grant Williams shrinks to infinity. What I did not recognize then was how effectively The Incredible Shrinking Man tapped into adult fears as well, for this was really a movie about terminal illness and slow death, subjects mainstream Hollywood loathed to address, but ones that might be concealed deep within framework of a modestly budgeted sci-fi movie.

All this came home to me when I watched the DVD last week. Several friends have lately got bad news from doctors. That happens as one gets older. Each time, you wonder when it’s going to be your turn. Scott Carey’s ordeal was no different in its essentials from a negative prognosis any of us might receive. However this movie may have dated since 1957, this is one aspect that has not. Children watching The Incredible Shrinking Man need only worry about cats and spiders. For adults, there are grimmer possibilities, and they can’t be resolved with a knitting needle. Is this why I hesitated to watch Shrinking Man again? I would challenge anyone who calls this a "fun" movie. That’s a domain for giant ants, Creatures from lagoons, and Metaluna mutants. They offer escapes from life, not confrontations with death. Monsters kill people in sci-fi movies and it doesn’t bother us. Scott Carey loses hope for recovery and it is shattering. We’re all of us reasonably safe from attack by a rampaging stegosaurus, but what about that biopsy result that’s due back? It is difficult in middle age to watch The Incredible Shrinking Man and not imagine yourself standing naked and vulnerable in a doctor's office. There are few movies so clinical in their depiction of a man doomed. The underlying theme is spelled out when specialist Raymond Bailey refers to the anti-cancer causing a diminution of all organs proportionately, while the fear of abandonment during one’s final illness is slammed home in that unbearably sad moment with the wedding ring. Unlike a lot of movies that ultimately pull their punches, this one follows through on its despairing promise, for Scott will indeed be abandoned in the end.

Now about that spider scene. There have been noises among online discussion groups that some of it may have been trimmed from the DVD. You'll recall the noxious creature hovers over Grant Williams for what seems an eternity before being impaled by his intended victim. The flow of blood that spews from the monster’s wound still inspires universal (and international) cringing among audience members. Posted complaints said there was much more blood in theatrical prints, but could these rose (or crimson) colored memories be an exaggeration of what we really saw? I can only relate the moment as it unspooled before me in 1964: The spider was preparing to seize Grant in its fearsome jaws. Grant thrust the needle into that soft belly. Torrents of blood gushed out. It not only covered Grant’s arm, but his entire body. The man was drenched. He had to swim through this muck as the beast’s foul carcass threatened to settle upon him. It was the most violent and explicit sequence in the entire history of motion pictures. The Liberty’s 35mm print was seized by federal authorities and offending footage removed by editors equipped with sidearms. No one has seen it since. How’s that for an enhanced recollection? Minus the gory river, armed officials, and disappearing reel, here’s what I do remember --- Yes, there was a little more blood in the scene and some of it ran down Grant William’s arm and on to his chest. Did I actually see it, or is this too an embellishment, albeit an unintended one? This is one movie argument that will never be settled.

What a great still of director Jack Arnold and producer Albert Zugsmith being denied access to the Shrinking Man set! Why don’t they do shots like this anymore? Must current movies take themselves so seriously? Zuggy was hanging his hat at Universal during the mid to late fifties, and some of the credits he accumulated were pretty impressive. Written On The Wind, The Tarnished Angels (was Zugsmith the real architect behind that fabled Sirkian touch?), Man In The Shadow (Jeff Chandler as a conflicted western sheriff!), Star In the Dust (John Agar as a conflicted western sheriff!), and TOUCH OF EVIL!! Do we owe Orson Welles’ mid-career triumph to Zuggy? After all, he gave O.W. a nice supporting role for one show (Man In The Shadow) and arranged for him to direct another (Touch Of Evil). The least Orson could do is lend his mellifluous voice to A.Z.’s trailer for The Incredible Shrinking Man. Too bad Universal included only a teaser version on the DVD. The full-length theatrical preview is a real treat, and Welles delivers his narration with gusto. How about these product placements? I hadn’t realized Fire Chief Matches, Superior Paint & Varnish Company, and Authentic Furniture Products had men in the field poised to take orders for this stuff, but I guess there were patrons inspired to buy an extra box of lights after seeing Grant Williams use one of them for a residence. I particularly like that Captain’s Chair they’re touting, but can’t help wondering if some potential customer might have called in a request for an oversized version similar to the one that swallows up poor Scott Carey. Do you suppose any of these gigantic props still exist in a Universal storage warehouse? I read most of them were too flimsy to use for promotions at the time, but who knows? There may be a few left. I'd love to have that giant pencil standing against the wall in my den, but I guess it got ruined during Scott's basement flood.


Blogger Kevin K. said...

On target once more. I was stunned when I saw "Shrinking Man" as a kid. I still remember that sad helplessness I felt at the end. Somewhere in the back of mind I thought, "This isn't a kids movie."

7:11 AM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

You mentioned the props... "Land of the Giants" was shot at Universal. Perhaps a few of them turned up in that series.

In the old days, when the Universal Studio Tour was a TOUR THROUGH A MOVIE STUDIO and not a theme park, there was a stopping poing along the route where you could purchase snacks. The picnic area provided was strewn with LOTG props... my dad has a photo of my sister and I climbing on an oversized camera. What fun!

11:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your post jogged my memory and sent me back to my laserdisc of T.I.S.M., which I haven't seen since I got it about twelve years ago (I watched it once then, and that had been the first time since I saw it in the theater in 1957).

I didn't notice before, but by golly, you're right; someone has tampered with that spider scene. The disc shows a single dainty drop of blood falling on Scott Carey's hand, barely covering his knuckles, before cutting away to the "face" of the (presumably) very surprised spider; I take it the DVD is the same. I definitely remember more blood from 1957, a great glistening glop of the stuff like cold lava, oozing down Carey's arm, certainly past the elbow, as he squirms and averts his face in disgust and horror. Of course, it was 1957, and blood on the screen was still something of a novelty, so it's possible my child's imagination got away from me a bit. But I doubt it.

My recollection of the overall impact of the movie, however, differs somewhat. The next morning at breakfast my dad asked me, "So what happens? Does he just shrink down to nothing?" "No," I said, "he keeps going down into atoms and stuff too small for anybody to see." Even as a kid, when we all think we're going to live forever, I could understand Scott Carey's fear that he was on an inexorable countdown to oblivion, one-seventh of an inch per day. Even so, the movie's last line -- "To God, there is no zero. I still exist." -- resonated with me then, and does now. I think it's a parable about the afterlife, as is Matheson's original novel, where the last line is "Scott Carey ran out into his new world, searching."

12:59 PM  
Blogger Oscar Grillo said...

Incredible moving and metaphysical film. One of the best end lines in the history of cinema!

6:28 PM  
Blogger Claroscureaux said...

This was one of my all time favorites as a kid. The local TV stations would sometimes re-run it on Saturday or Sunday afternoons.

5:21 AM  
Blogger Ed said...

I saw Shrinking Man in 1957 at the age of six at the theater and, yes, the impaled spider's blood covered Carey's arms and dotted his tunic.

2:47 PM  

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