Release Date(s)1957 (October 19, 2021)
Studio(s)Universal Pictures (Criterion – Spine #1100)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A
Science fiction films of the 1950s often featured giant creatures preying on mankind. Them (giant ants), Tarantula!, Godzilla, The Amazing Colossal Man, and Attack of the 50 Foot Woman showed how oversize creatures, non-human and human, could wreak havoc on the world. Director Jack Arnold set the story on a different path in The Incredible Shrinking Man.
While out on a boat with his wife during a vacation, Scott Carey (Grant Williams) is enveloped by what turns out to have been a radioactive cloud. At first, nothing seems wrong, but weeks later Scott finds that his clothes are too big and he is shorter by a few inches. The doctors he consults put him through many medical tests but are completely baffled. Never before have they encountered this phenomenon.
As he continues to shrink and doctors attempt to find a cure, he becomes angry and often takes out his frustrations on his wife, Louise (Randy Stuart). He becomes increasingly depressed, fearing a cure will never be found. The press gets wind of his unique situation and he becomes famous, but Scott confines himself to his home, becoming increasingly isolated from society, Louise his only solace.
When he’s about six inches tall, a frightening confrontation with a cat accidentally causes Scott to tumble into the basement, where a large section of the film takes place. There, he must use his ingenuity to find food and water, elude a hungry spider, avoid drowning, and let Louise know that he’s still alive.
Director Jack Arnold (The Creature from the Black Lagoon) and the Universal special effects department pulled out all the stops using then state-of-the-art effects to create the illusion that Scott is shrinking. The techniques included use of oversized props, rear projection, split screen, and matting. These techniques are varied throughout and so artfully executed that they sustain the illusion and we become completely involved in Scott’s plight.
Grant Williams was a good choice for the lead mostly because this Universal contract player, while a competent actor, was not a star. His average-guy looks help us to accept his hapless character more readily than if we were trying to get past a star’s persona. Williams elicits empathy for Scott, making us realize the nightmare he’s experiencing.
Arnold was given the biggest budget of any film he directed for Universal and it shows on the screen. The film was based on the Richard Matheson novel The Shrinking Man and made at a cost of between $700,000 and $800,000, a large part of which was spent on special effects. The film was among the highest-grossing science fiction films of the 1950s.
Featuring 1080p resolution, the Criterion Collection brings the film to Blu-ray in the widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The 4K digital restoration was undertaken by Universal Pictures from the original 35 mm camera negative and restored at Universal Studios in California. Picture quality varies primarily because of the special effects sequences. In non-effects scenes, it’s pristine with excellent detail. The rear projection scenes with the cat show Scott sharply in focus, the cat somewhat blurry. When Scott runs across the floor, there’s an obvious outline around him, a result of matting, and he casts no shadow despite obvious light sources from lamps. These flaws are quite evident to viewers used to seamless CGI effects. The matching of normal and large-scale props is effective and adds to the illusion that Scott is shrinking.
The single audio track is English 1.0 LPCM. Optional English SDH subtitles are available. Dialogue is clear and distinct throughout. Scott’s voice has been made to sound higher pitched when he’s about six inches tall to allow for his smaller vocal cords. There are long stretches in the basement with no dialogue. The musical score, culled from many sources, underscores the dramatic moments and enhances their effectiveness. Sound effects of note include wind blowing a door open, the screaming of a fierce cat, twanging of a spider web, “giant” droplets of water hitting a ledge, water flooding from the hot water heater, a match being struck and igniting, the thud of a falling needle, and water rushing down the basement drain. Some carnival music is heard in the background when Scott meets a circus midget.
Bonus materials on the Region A Blu-ray release include the following:
Audio Commentary – Genre film historian Tom Weaver provides a lively discussion of The Incredible Shrinking Man. He reads the film’s opening description from Richard Matheson’s screenplay. The boat with Scott and Louise lounging on it was filmed in the studio with a rear-projected ocean. The opening of the novel isn’t as dramatic as the screenplay. Weaver reads dialogue from a scene in an early draft of the screenplay—eventually cut—in which Scott and Louise engage in dopey, unnecessary banter. Though this was the first time Matheson wrote for the movies, he included camera set-ups, scene transitions, and places where music should be. Several of these ideas wound up in the final film. William Schallert, who plays Scott’s doctor, appeared in many science fiction films and was a favorite actor of producer Albert Zugsmith, who used him in twelve pictures. Grant Williams was signed by Universal in Spring 1955, appeared in the Western Red Sundown, and impressed producer Zugsmith and director Jack Arnold, who cast him in the film. Universal purchased Matheson’s novel The Shrinking Man for $15,000 when the author was in his late 20s. He wrote two more screenplays for the studio. Various excerpts from early drafts of the script are read by Weaver and others. When Scott finds himself in the basement, “he’s in a whole new world.” He becomes self-sufficient and highly resourceful. His physical shrinking is his mental growth. The role of Scott was initially offered to Dan O’Herlihy, who had starred in The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe and received an Academy Award nomination, but he declined even though Universal offered him a three-picture deal. There was evidence after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima that human bodies shrank up to three inches. To Scott, the basement is like a mythological adventure set in a kingdom. As he continues to shrink, Scott knows he will become too weak to fight the spider. “He has to bring the fight to the spider, and he has to do it now.” Weaver turns the commentary over to David Schecter for a 12-minute discussion of the film’s music, noting the contributions of Hans Salter, Herman Stein, Irving Getz, and outside song writers. Though the ending of the film, featuring religious overtones, has been regarded as a weakness by some critics and viewers, Scott finds himself at peace and philosophical about his place in the universe. In 1958, the film received a Hugo Award, and in 2009, it was inducted into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.
Auteur on the Campus: Jack Arnold at Universal – Director’s Cut (50:14) – Contract directors had to direct everything “efficiently and well.” Jack Arnold began acting on Broadway in the 1930s. As a sideline, he filmed movies of the plays he was in. He went on to work with documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty. After a stint in the army, he formed a company making educational and promotional films, among them With These Hands, a pro-union film that attracted the attention of Universal. He was signed to a seven-year contract. The B film Girls in the Night was a forerunner of the rebellious teen movies of the 50s; it did well, leading to Arnold’s directing It Came from Outer Space, shot in 3D. Ray Bradbury wrote the treatment, setting the film in the desert, giving it a naturalistic look. Arnold had the ability to understand the script and translate it effectively to the screen. The Glass Web, also shot in 3D, followed and then Arnold was chosen to direct The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The Creature suit was designed by Millicent Patrick and is referred to as the “greatest monster suit ever made.” The film was shot entirely on the studio back lot except for the underwater sequences, which were filmed in Florida because of its crystal clear water. Ricou Browning played the Creature in the underwater scenes and Ben Chapman played him on land. Sequels were uncommon at the time, but because of the film’s popularity, the studio rushed Revenge of the Creature into production, also in 3D. The Creature suit was redesigned to enable Browning to see better underwater. A third film, The Creature Walks Among Us, once again had a redesigned suit for the creature and was not shot in 3D. The Creature joined Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man as one of Universal’s iconic movie monsters. Arnold also directed Westerns for Universal as well as the sci-fi films Tarantula! and This Island Earth. He became a frequent director of TV series, including Science Fiction Theater, Peter Gunn, Mr. Lucky, Dr. Kildare, Perry Mason, and Rawhide.
The Infinitesimal: Remembering The Shrinking Man (10:57) – Richard Christian Matheson, son of writer Richard Matheson, notes that his father was watching a movie in which a character put on a hat that was too big for him. This gave him the idea for his novel The Shrinking Man. One of its themes is that masculinity is not so unassailable. Both Matheson and director Arnold were protective of the film’s ending, though it didn’t test well and the studio wanted it changed. Though the ending is downbeat and dark, it has a “strange metaphysical updraft.” Scott moves into another dimension, a new landscape. The novel removes layers, one by one. Matheson refers to it as a “mature piece of filmmaking.”
Terror at Every Turn (24:52) – Visual effects supervisor Craig Barren and sound designer Ben Burtt discuss specialized filming techniques used to create the film’s major set pieces. Arnold elevated the sci-fi/fantasy genre. Most monster films of the 50s ended with the monster being destroyed and things returning to normal. The Incredible Shrinking Man doesn’t tell you that everything is OK. Arnold used storyboards to help his crew visualize what he had in mind for effects sequences. Miniature people had appeared previously on screen in other movies, such as The Devil Doll and Doctor Cyclops. Barren and Burnt discuss how various effects were created. Much of the sound was added after the film was shot. Singled out are the twangy sound of the spider web being disturbed, giant droplets of water, and a needle being dropped. Several old-school effects are described, including rear projection, split screen, use of oversize props, and matting. The photochemical matting was not perfect because outlines were visible and there were no shadows.
Let’s Get Small (23:09) – In this 2021 conversation, filmmaker Joe Dante and comedian/writer Dana Gould discuss their love of of the film. It did well but did not receive great reviews and was not a huge hit. The novel is more graphic about the main character not being able to satisfy his wife sexually, and there’s a sequence involving a child molester. “It’s a quintessential 50s movie.” Many writers who worked on the TV series The Twilight Zone went on to sell scripts to Hollywood, Richard Matheson among them. Dante notes he collaborated with Matheson on Twilight Zone: The Movie. Matheson also wrote The Night Stalker for TV. Stephen King was drawn to Matheson because of the ordinariness of his milieus, level of detail, and pop culture references. Arnold’s other films are discussed briefly. Arnold was supportive of young filmmakers. Film clips and stills are interspersed with this conversation.
Jack Arnold, 1983 (26:55) – This is a collection of excerpts from a series of interviews conducted by German journalist Roland Johannes on August 9 and 10, 1983, at director Jack Arnold’s office on the Universal Studios lot. Arnold answers questions about his career and his major films. He discusses the studio system and the ready availability of talent in terms of actors and crew. He compares working on feature films with working on television and comments how the industry has changed in the 25 years since he was at his peak as a Hollywood director.
8-Millimeter Home Cinema Versions (16:24) – Two heavily edited Castle Films versions of the film are shown, one with sound, the other silent with subtitles. Key scenes are shown, including the cloud passing over Scott on the boat, early concerns about his ongoing weight loss, the doctor’s consultation, Scott child size, the cat and spider confrontations, and the basement flood. The quality of these films is quite poor compared to the feature restoration.
Teaser (:38) – Narrated by Orson Welles, this brief teaser uses only graphics. No actual scenes from the film are shown.
Trailer (2:04) – The theatrical trailer for the film contains Orson Welles’ narration and, in bold letters, “A Fascinating Adventure Into the Unknown.” Brief excerpts from Scott’s confrontation with the cat, a mousetrap, and a flooded basement are shown. The trailer promises “A Motion Picture You Will Talk About… For Years to Come."
The Lost Music of The Incredible Shrinking Man (17:13) – Horror music expert David Schecter presents previously lost and unused recordings from the film. Music was removed either because it was deemed excessive or because it didn’t neatly fit the edited scene. The four musical cues heard are Medical Montage, Spouse Trap, Life or Death, and End Title. Also included are the instrumental and vocal versions of Girl in a Lonely Room, submitted to Universal as a demo record and used as part of the musical score for the film. A slideshow of the film’s posters, ad layouts, storyboards, and artwork accompanies the music.
Suspense: Return to Dust (18:56) – This radio play about a scientist shrinking in his lab and desperately trying to reach a colleague for help originally aired on the program Suspense on February 1, 1959. The scientist is played by Richard “Dick” Beals, an actor with a unique, high-pitched voice.
Booklet – An enclosed accordion-style booklet contains the critical essay Other Dimensions by Geoffrey O’Brien, cast and credits, black-and-white production and publicity photos, details about the digital restoration, and a black-and-white graphic design on the cover.
Not included from Arrow Video’s Region B Blu-ray release is an audio commentary by Tim Lucas. A Koch Media Region B Blu-ray release of the film also included an additional interview with Jack Arnold, which hasn't carried over either.
The Incredible Shrinking Man is one of several science fiction films of the 1950s that points to radioactivity as an unpredictable danger to mankind, with its ominous white cloud conjuring images of mushroom clouds from atomic bombs. The film has remained relevant with its cautionary message, and is both intelligently written and highly entertaining.
- Dennis Seuling