Saturday, 23 January 2010

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

Country: USA

Much of the resonance and tension in director Jack Arnold’s film version of Richard Matheson’s disturbing novel The Shrinking Man comes due to its continual appropriation of Sigmund Freud’s notion of the uncanny. Freud developed this psychoanalytical schematic by drawing on the German term unheimlich, which simply means that which is familiar becoming unfamiliar. By dramatising a human being’s nightmarish struggle with otherwise normal and ordinary things such as a pet cat and a spider, and the subversion of a cellar into a labyrinthine space of peril and death – Matheson and in turn Arnold tapped into a primal source of fear buried deep within us all. It is not so much the shrinkage that is the locus of the horror, but instead the threat from things that are normally safe and contained.

On the surface the film fits comfortably into the thematic concerns of the day. In this case an attitude of caution and pessimism towards modern technological progress and the failure of the technological institutions to keep in check the excesses of scientific advancement. Modern medicine’s failure to halt the process of shrinkage that Scott Carey endures is another frightening aspect to the film, especially in an age when dependence on experts was at an all time high. The glittery cloud of radiation which sweeps over Scott while he relaxes on his boat functions more as an Hitchcockian MacGuffin - a barely glimpsed device utilised in order to propel the story. Although the radiation cloud implies a critical discourse it is not actually the major concern of this film. Perhaps most disturbing about this incident is that even when holidaying, away from society, in a barely shifting and serene ocean, humankind cannot escape the purposeful encroachment of misused technology. There is no escape from the terrors of science.

For me the central critique or position of the film revolves around the family and suburbia. The novel one could argue is an extended metaphor for the fears of conformity that come with both marriage and suburbia, and Arnold retains this and taps into it without unbalancing the film. It is logical in a film which sees suburbia and family life as a stultifying orthodoxy aided by the sameness of suburban neighbourhoods – that the average suburban house is the space by which these nightmares are confronted and excised. This is a far from progressive film from the perspective of gender, with women seemingly positioned as one more aspect of male entrapment within traditional values that hold little credence in the age of Hiroshima. The film also retains Arnold’s own thematic concern surrounding issues of social acceptance and tolerance, and this enables the film to stand on it own outside the shadow of Matheson’s novel.

This is a marvel of technical brilliance, and all the more impressive for the fact that much of the illusion and spectacle is created without special effects. Instead we see the clever use of lenses, object distance and the scale of objects. The attention to prop design is second to none – the most impressive of which is a mousetrap and a match. These in camera special effects give the film a stylistic coherence that many sci-fi/horror films of the 1950 lacked, and ultimately aided the creation of one of Hollywood’s great sci-fi/horror films. Director Jack Arnold is chiefly remembered for his trilogy of Creature films, but it is The Incredible Shrinking Man which remains his masterpiece.

© Shaun Anderson 2010

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