Wednesday, 2 September 2020

Hugo Cinema Club: The Best Of 1958

The Incredible Shrinking Man was the 
first movie honoured by the Hugo Awards.
(image via Empire Magazine)
This blog post is the first in a series examining past winners of the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award. An introductory blog post is here.  

By the late 1950s, science fiction cinema had developed a reputation for being the domain of B-movies. Shot quickly, on a cheap budget, and featuring mostly unknown actors, these movies appear to have aimed low and were a disappointment to serious science fiction fans. It was possibly to counteract this reputation that the organizing committee of Solacon (the 16th Worldcon) decided to introduce a Hugo Award for “Outstanding Science Fiction Motion Picture,” and promote movies that took the genre more seriously.

Author Charles Beamont, quoted in the September 1955 Science Fiction News, expressed a common opinion at the time among fans: “The correction of a single mistake — Hollywood’s mad insistence upon hiring writers who know nothing about science fiction, and care for it less, to write science fiction — might do wonders toward bringing about a renaissance.” Similar complaints litter almost every discussion of science fiction movies in fanzines in the 1950s.

Having Richard Matheson closely involved with a major motion picture adaptation of one of his books was therefore something that was welcomed by fandom. As the guest of honour for Solacon, Matheson was well-known, and it should be no surprise that a movie he’d crafted was worthy of winning the first award for what would later be known as Best Dramatic Presentation.

The Incredible Shrinking Man is head and shoulders above almost all other genre films released in 1957. The story is well told, nicely paced, and emotionally rich. The movie features an ordinary middle-class American named Scott Carey who begins to slowly shrink after being exposed to radiation. Though the premise might seem pulpy, Matheson’s writing draws in the audience, first with a tale of psychological turmoil as the protagonist’s normative privilege is stripped away, then later with an adventure movie in which he faces more physical threats. 

Brian Donlevy is the only actor to have
played Professor Quatermass twice. 
And he's excellent. 
(Image via hammerfilms.com)
One of the narrative arcs that highlights the strength of Matheson’s writing is Scott Carey’s relationship with his wife Louise. Before he starts shrinking, Scott and Louise seem to have a very positive, happy relationship — though she is to some degree depicted as subservient to him. Once he starts to decrease in size, he becomes increasingly controlling towards her and lashes out as his privilege metaphorically shrinks. This connection between diminishing privilege and reactionary anger is well observed, and still seems timely.

The Incredible Shrinking Man could be described as two stories stitched together; the first half of the movie is a story about Carey’s fraying relationships, while the second half is a pulp adventure story about survival. While this does create some pacing issues, both halves of the movie work on their own, and the result holds up well today.

The special effects in the second half of The Incredible Shrinking Man are particularly effective, and show attention to detail. Unlike several contemporaneous movies, these effects are used to tell a story, rather than the story being a vehicle on which to sell a visual spectacle. The ending is also remarkably grim — a fact that reportedly left 1950s audiences unsatisfied, but one that in our eyes helps make the movie relevant today.

With no shortlist to rely on, it’s difficult to know what other movies Hugo voters might have considered for the award in 1958. With the benefit of hindsight, we’d suggest Ray Harryhausen’s black-and-white movie 20 Million Miles To Earth might have warranted a nod. Only his second movie in charge of all special effects, 20 Million Miles To Earth was the first movie that was made entirely as a showcase for his work. Though the plot is thin — standard monster-movie fare — and the acting is uninspiring, the level of care put into the monster elevates the movie above many of its contemporaries.

Another film that may have been suitable for a Hugo shortlist that year would have been Quatermass 2,
the Hammer Films remake of the BBC serial from the previous year. One member of our viewing club did pick it as his favourite science fiction movie of 1957, and said he would vote for it ahead of Shrinking Man. Quatermass 2 is one of the better films to follow the Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers trope. It oozes tension as the protagonist Bernard Quatermass investigates the infiltration of the British government by alien forces. There’s a lot to love in this movie — particularly the acting and dialogue, but its inconsistent special effects and an incongruent slapstick ending are disappointing.

In some ways, the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award could not have been introduced at a better time than 1958: the movies that stood out from the pack that year show the medium moving forward, and helped introduce popular audiences to a new generation of science fiction writers, directors and special effects artists. 

The Hugo For Best Dramatic Presentation starts out on a high note. Not only does the winning movie stand the test of time, the award moves science fiction cinema forward.

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