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Incredible Shrinking Man, The (DVD Review)

19 Sep, 2011 By: Mike Clark

$19.98 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Grant Williams, Randy Stuart, April Kent.

Of all the movies whose arrival on DVD have taken a ga-zillion years or at least a dozen, I’ve been puzzled by the MIA status of this Richard Matheson-Jack Arnold collaboration other than in a previously issued boxed set — it filled with other sci-fi chillers from the Universal-International ‘50s stable (many fun but not many as first-rate). Given the fan base it has picked up over several decades — including the good folks at the Library of Congress who select all-timers for the National Film registry — Shrinking Man really merits a full-court-press edition with extras instead of this no-frills job, welcome as it is. At one point, its starving lead character is pleased to be munching on basement mousetrap bait, and I kind of feel the same way.

As an aging impressionable youth, I’m pleased to say that I saw Man at age 9 in a neighborhood theater engagement during its original release; it was a Big Deal. For one thing, either Life or Look had set the table by doing a multi-page spread. And savvy playground types I hung out with already knew, along with Chico Carrasquel’s fielding average, that the big photo mags did not ordinarily devote space to movies starring the likes of Grant Williams and Randy Stuart — or to Universal “B’s” in general. There had to be something else to sell the picture, and there was: incredible props like a 12-foot sewing needle and a comparably giant pair of scissors — which when juxtaposed against Williams’ frame, made him small enough not to be mistaken for, say, 6-foot-5 Rod Cameron. This, of course, was the point and when it preceded its suburban engagement by playing my hometown/downtown RKO Palace (which it was, in size and seating capacity), Man became the almost unheard-of sci-fi pic to get held over for a second week. (Somehow, I don’t think the Allied Artists co-feature — a British Dale Robertson mystery, High Terrace — had much to do with it).

Nuclear radiation is the story’s culprit (in this case, a mist that has passed over Williams’ body), though wife Stuart has conveniently gone inside their small boat during a love-fest outing to grab a beer. In pop culture of the day, radiation was responsible for everything bad in the ‘50s this side of Richard Nixon — and we tended to chuckle at this until it came out that nuclear testing fall-out may well have contributed to the eventual real-life cancer deaths of John Wayne, Susan Hayward, director Dick Powell and many others from filming The Conqueror near Nevada blast sites. In the case of Williams’ protagonist, the cause-and-effect isn’t so gradual. Within months, he is looking up at “all-woman” Stuart (think a more buxom Vera-Ellen) and no doubt feeling inadequate. Even assuming she’s not one of those automatic bigger-is-better types, the Mrs. must figure that having a husband no taller than a yardstick is pushing it and that, as things now stand, just one of those pleasure cruise beers would put him away.

It does, of course, get worse – and this is the beauty of the movie. Ultimately living in a kid’s dollhouse and later a matchbox, Williams sees ordinary household items we all take for granted become intimidating (pin cushion, paint can) while routine domestic creatures (a now-behemoth spider, housecat-turned-“Simba”) become objects of terror. All the while — and this gets a tad risible if you don’t go with the flow — Williams’ character takes the time to indulge in a voice-over narration (sans any change in voce timbre) that espouses the spiritual dimension he’s developing from all this. On the other hand, I think the movie’s attempt to get a little lofty is one of the things that really elevates it — along with the effects, irresistible premise and a tight running time whose second half all but evolves into a silent picture with sound effects.

“Twilight Zone” fixture Matheson adapted his own novel, which I’ve always been told differs significantly in certain episodes (Kindle just made itself a $4.74 sale). Director Arnold, a journeyman-plus, had a kind of interesting career: Creature From the Black Lagoon and its first sequel; must-see Tarantula; arguably the last Bob Hope comedy of note (Bachelor in Paradise); arguably the standout Audie Murphy Western (No Name on the Bullet); and, of course, that Mamie Van Doren essential High School Confidential! Mamie’s then real-life husband was trumpeter Ray Anthony, who supplies Man’s opening-credits theme — one as mournful as those foreboding trumpets in Dimitri Tiomkin’s score for The Alamo until the rest of the picture begins employing the more screechy brass that almost every U-I/sci-fi release from the ‘50s had. Another footnote is April Kent as the fresh-faced and empathetically compatible carnival midget Williams meets (and who likely attracts a lot of kinky guys). In real life, she was the daughter of June Havoc – the immortalized “Baby June” from Gypsy.

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