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DVD SAVANT

Savant Review:
4D Man



4D Man
Image Entertainment
1959 / Color / 1:37 / Single Layer / Dolby Digital mono English
Starring Robert Lansing, Lee Meriwether, James Congdon, Edgar Stehli, Robert Strauss, Guy Raymond, Chic James, Patty Duke
Cinematographer Theodore J. Pahle
Art Direction William Jersey
Makeup Dean Newman
Music Ralph Carmichael
Special Effects Bart Sloane
Written by Theodore Simonson and Cy Chermak
Produced by Jack H. Harris and Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr.
Directed by Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Lowbudget independent filmmaking was a staple of movies in the 50s and 60s, where new talent got started, studio talent tried their luck outside the system, and oddball mavericks rolled in from every direction. All sorts of filmmakers were putting together lowbudget efforts, and although some of the output was obvious trash (often still very entertaining), the level of achievement wasn't bad at all: for every Ed Wood there were expressive artists like Ray Ashley, Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin (Little Fugitive), John Parker ( Dementia ), and Herk Harvey (Carnival of Souls). Engel, Morris and Orkin were New York photographers with talent and ambitions. Harvey was an industrial filmmaker with a hankering for features; Parker may have been a Venice, California experimental filmmaker, or just a nom de film for Bruno Ve Soto, exploitation actor-turned-director.

In 1958 producer Jack H. Harris become notable by selling his Science Fiction horror movie The Blob to a big studio, Paramount, for a terrific profit. '57 and '58 had seen a glut of monster movies of ever-decreasing quality and Paramount must have been rolling the dice in hopes of a socko hit like Godzilla, or The Curse of Frankenstein , overseas acquisitions that had cleaned up for Joseph E. Levine and Warners. When The Blob became a success, it joined the ranks of other relatively cheap films that earned outsized profits: Rodan, another Japanese pickup, and The Fly, a homegrown horror shot with big stars in CinemaScope and Stereophonic Sound. With all kinds of esoteric product heralded nowadays in nostalgic articles, we sometimes forget which films were the biggies.

Harris had done something unusual with The Blob; he stumbled across some rural Pennsylvanian religious filmmakers who were turning out quality 35mm inspirational short subjects from the makeshift Valley Forge Studios. Their leader was a minister named Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr., an idealistic and charismatic man committed to spreading his beliefs via film, and his dedicated religous moviemakers had persevered through all kinds of deprivations. Harris liked Yeaworth and at Valley Forge saw the makings of his own little empire: here was the opportunity to turn out commercial color features at a fraction of what it would take in Hollywood or New York. 6

Everyone knows about the success of The Blob, with Steve(n) McQueen. Whatever symbiosis Harris and Yeaworth had formed, it functioned, because they worked together twice more, on two very unique, if less successful followups to the monster that "leaps, and creeps, and slides, and glides across the floor ": 4D Man, and Dinosaurus!

4D Man is the more interesting of the two .... it's a very effective cross between literary science fiction and the standard Universal-type horror film of decades past. Screenwriter Theodore Simonson had written The Blob; his credited co-writer Cy Chermak later became a noted television writer and producer. Their 4D Man screenplay is a dandy little construct of nicely-orchestrated themes and characters, and worthy of close study.



Synopsis:

Brothers Scott and Tony Nelson are scientists with very different personalities. Scott (Robert Lansing), underpaid head researcher at Carson Laboratories, is a humorless workaholic who shrugs off the fact that his achievements are being usurped by his boss, Dr. Theodore Carson (Edgar Stehli). His girlfriend Linda (Lee Meriwether) urges Scott to assert himself, but he stubbornly adheres to a defeatist posture, grudgingly resigned to his lack of public acknowledgment.

Younger brother Tony (James Congdon) is Scott's positively-charged opposite. Tony also has brilliant scientific ideas, but has made himself unemployable by irresponsibly breaking rules. He shows up on Scott's doorstep, fresh from recklessly burning down a college lab. Soon Tony is set up in a lab of his own, but his enthusiasm only makes Scott more bitter and withdrawn. Even worse, Linda is immediately attracted to Tony's lighter personality.

Scott's newest invention is Cargonite, a metal with an atomic structure so dense, Dr. Carson has publicized it as being totally impregnable. Tony's unproven theory posits an electrical field that would allow solid objects to pass through one another. Since all matter is made of infinitesimal particles whirling in mostly empty space, Tony believes that one object can penetrate another without ever touching, like galaxies that pass through one another without a single star colliding.

Scott has been suffering from migraines; his EEG readings are off the scale and he worries that his exposure to radiation may be affecting his brain. When he loses Linda's affections as well, Scott flips out and hijacks his brother's experiment, with outrageous results. Tony's electrical field (perhaps) transforms Scott into a living 4D object that can penetrate anything at will, giving him the godlike ability to reach into locked safes, and walk through furniture and walls. Unfortunately, for every second he's in 4D, Scott consumes years of his 'lifeforce', aging into a white-haired, wrinkled old man in minutes. The only way to save himself is to steal the lifeforce of others. This happens with a simple touch - Scott reaches 'into' his best friend Fred (Guy Raymond) and the man drops dead, becoming unrecognizably whithered and gray, while Scott is partially rejuvenated. As the bizarre murders stack up, Tony and Linda have to find some way to stop the deranged Scott, who has become a fourth-dimensional vampire, invulnerable while in 4D. When Scott discovers his brother and sweetheart are plotting against him, no walls can keep them safe from Scott's killing touch.


Like many lowbudget genre films, the lack of sophistication in 4D Man's production makes its interesting ideas stand out all the more strongly. The setup is schematic but compelling: the stodgy, passive Scott develops a defensive, impenetrable metal, and the dynamic, active Tony invents an irresistable force that pierces without destruction. The film's theme music should be the pop song "Something's Gotta Give." When Scott goes haywire and jealously steals his brother's invention, he breaks the mechanism of his own personality ... and spins out of control into megalomanic excess. He becomes a consumer version of James Mason's intellectually liberated maniac in Bigger Than Life. Like the drugs that released Mason's repressed ego, the Fourth Dimension releases Scott Nelson's desires for sex, riches and power. In a consumer credit nightmare, Scott must kill repeatedly to replenish his youth ... but to do that he has to keep entering the 4D state, wasting priceless lifeforce in a Catch-22 cycle. Like a drug addict, Scott becomes a criminal just to stay alive. He loses control over everything, even his newfound abilities: his emotions cause him to enter 4D involuntarily. His power is miraculous, but he's simultaneously a pathetic misfit. It's The Curse of the Werewolf crossed with The Organization Man.

The original pattern for much of this is in H.G. Wells' The Invisble Man, whose fantastic invisibility brings forth a deranged desire to dominate, a trait which became so universal a mad doctor cliche, it probably does represent a basic human truth: As far as technological hubris is concerned, (to jump in with more song lyrics) it seems "... Ev' ry body wants to rule the world."

Most stories of this kind establish a jumping-off premise and then devolve into repetitious murders.1 Like a Chinese Box puzzle, 4D Man follows through with neatly-turned complications inseparable from its characters. The emotionally scattered Tony cannot make his tabletop forcefield function - but when the disciplined Scott concentrates his souped-up, jealous brainwaves on the equation, what he can do seems limitless. Tony wants to follow his brother into the 4th Dimension but cannot: he's brilliant, but his brain just isn't as 'together' as his brother's. Villainous Roy Parker's (Robert Strauss) is an exaggeration of the brothers' faults: twofaced like Tony, and covetous of all the things Scott wants, including Linda.

4D Man's form suggests that Scott succeeds where Tony failed because his source of power is Pure Angst. Great achievers accomplish their feats through force of will, both liberated and limited by the horizons of their own personalities. Since Scott's 4D existence is an unsustainable paradox, it is fitting that his godlike powers be neutralized by the collision of the two halves of his split personality: When the sexually charged 4D power stolen from Tony ("... When an irresistable force, such as you...") plunges back into the 'impenetrable' Cargonite that represents Scott's life-negating sterility ("... meets an old unmoveable object like me .."), the issue is resolved. Like Cronenberg's BrundleFly, Scott becomes one with his creation. 'What you worship is what you become,' just as Lot's wife becomes a dead pillar of salt in Sodom and Gomorrah, or Diabolik becomes a 'dead' statue of gold.

4D Man is a model of symmetry, but is by no means a classic. Most independent lowbudget productions are put together like puzzles with missing pieces. Artistic compromises come from a lack of resources, and everyone seems to have a different set of puzzle pieces. Dementia and Little Fugitive couldn't afford synch sound, but compensated with good acting and original approaches to their material. Carnival of Souls had sync sound but a stiff script and some amateurish actors, and made up the slack through style alone.

4D Man both benefits and suffers from the puzzle pieces assembled by Jack Harris and Irvin Yeaworth. Yeaworth's direction is unsteady; some of the blocking results in odd eyelines, (Meriwether somehow ends up looking crosseyed in her first glamour closeup!) and there are as many static scenes as there are dynamic ones. But the non-Hollywood effort is refreshing in its lack of slickness. Naive, yes; awkward, yes ... but also honest and sincere. It's exactly the kind of film that would be a hoot on MSTK3000, and doesn't deserve the ridicule.

The basic production values are quite good. Technically, the little Valley Forge Film is studio-quality. The photography is glossy, even if the art direction is a bit strange. 2 The sound is a few notches below A-Plus work but is generally well recorded. 3 The special effects range from good to mediocre but are always imaginative and effective. Far more ambitious than Bart Sloane's previous blobby tricks, 4D Man takes on complicated opticals combining travelling mattes and animation to make Robert Lansing walk through walls, best done before in Michael Powell's Technicolor A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven). The shots are fairly grainy, with that bane of low-budget effects work, erratic matte lines. Yet all the 4D sequences, even the ones that seem to be avoiding effects, are successful because the excitement of the story carries them through.

The best special effect moments use effortless low-tech solutions. Stealing an apple, Scott penetrates a storefront window, its glass represented by only a projected line of white light that touches his arm as he reaches through. Another shot with a mailbox is a clever puzzle that shows Scott's hand penetrating the box without matte lines. Savant could be wrong, but it looks as if the box had no front panel at all, with the only matted item being the little mail pickup schedule on the front!

Of special merit is Dean Newman's ambitious makeup for Robert Lansing's various states of decrepitude. In the last scene, where it can best be studied, it appears to be the cotton-build up kind of job Jack Pierce did for Karloff in The Mummy. Lansing's face wrinkes and furrows while he performs ... It's really a fine makeup job, and superior to the stiff 'melted candle' look later applauded in Little Big Man.

The film's illusions are also 'sold' by a trilling Musical Sound Effect 4 heard whenever Scott enters his 4D state. The sound is often used alone, as when Scott breaks into Linda's boudoir Caligari-style and threatens to rape (kill?) her. Linda runs like blazes for the door, only to find Scott waiting on her front porch, imitating Tex Avery's unshakeable Droopy Dog. Not an effect in sight, yet very effective. Savant's favorite 4D Man image: Scott Nelson reaching into a nuclear reactor, arms outstretched at a blinding blast of fissionable material as it, uh, fissionates. It sums up a lot of 50s attitudes toward nuclear power, and human foolishness while playing with it...5

Of course, the actors sell these scenes better than any effects can. When Scott walks through Dr. Carson's sofa ("How did you get in?"), the mattes are none too convincing. Robert Lansing's casual air, hands in his pockets, mumbling, gives the moment its kick: "Through the door..."

Harris and Yeaworth had snared exciting and promising New York actors for The Blob. Along with McQueen came the charming Aneta Corseaut (credited as Corsaut) whose Kathy O'Donnell-like sweetness probably appealed to director Yeaworth's interest in gentle human values. For 4D Man the producers found a powerhouse of method talent in the underrated Robert Lansing, who seems to have been chosen for his resemblance to Steve McQueen. In Lee Meriwether they found a female lead who could transcend the typical simpering sci-fi girlfriend role. Her 'betrayal' scene is particularly good. 4D Man was a first feature for both of them, he of later Twelve O'Clock High TV fame (where he was ironically discarded, Scott Nelson - like, for the more 'exciting, youthful' Paul Burke) and she with the unfortunate destiny of becoming Catwoman for the theatrical version of TV's Batman, mewing in the shadow of the more va-voom Julie Newmar. As Tony, James Congdon isn't bad but he's still the weak link, especially when delivering 4D Man's occasional clunker dialogue. Starting in a bit role in When Worlds Collide, Congdon has force but comes off as stagebound; even in the act-o-rama of the later The Group, he seems to be overacting. The comic Robert Strauss, for 1959 audiences, was inseparable from his loutish goofball characters in Stalag 17 and The Seven Year Itch, and with Mickey Rooney in The Atomic Kid and Bridges at Toko-Ri, so he gets some unintentional laughs. Finally, there's little Patty Duke, in a bit as Marjorie Sutherland, the Little Girl Who Meets A Monster. Karloff's playmate took the plunge in Frankenstein, and Richard Wordsworth's tea-time girl in The Quatermass Xperiment got off with just a smashed doll, but Scott's encounter with Marjorie is curiously underdirected. It's written as "she dies" but the scene ends without emphasis. Whether or not Scott Nelson gives little Marjorie a one-way ticket to the old folk's home, remains unclear.

The least-loved puzzle piece in 4D Man is Ralph Carmichael's overstated Jazz score, which builds to nice moments but is an unwelcome presence most of the time. The Variety review of October 7, 1959 wasn't kind to it either, saying that the trend of Jazz scores for film was burning out. The best thing about the blaring music is the way it backs off at crucial moments to let suspenseful silence take over, or to allow the above-mentioned shimmering Musical Sound Effect to do its stuff. Hey, classic Hammer films are carpeted wall-to-wall with wonderfully overemphatic music ... but not bongo drums.

4D Man's premise was the source of many a playground argument: When Scott enters 4D, does he retain his mass? Does gravity still affect him? If not, why doesn't he float up off the floor? If he still has weight, why doesn't he immediately fall to the center of the earth? Ah, the great debates of the third grade. The kid with the goriest explanation invariably won.


Image's DVD is a satisfactory no-frills affair. Simple chapter menus and colorful box art are about all it can boast. The film itself is clear and colorful, if not as sharp as new releases. (Note, 11.03.02: I've since seen transfers on cable television that are far superior) The transfer element seems to be 35mm, and overall the show is intact and undamaged. The audio mix seems more compressed than on television, with the music fighting the dialog in a couple of scenes a tad more than usual. The 1:37 ratio is full-frame and rather loose; cropping the image on a widescreen TV restores the compositions to their theatrical tautness. 16:9 formatting would have been nice, but such luxuries are rare for movies like 4D Man, aren't they?


Image Entertainment's new DVD of 4D Man is a nifty thrill: a suspenseful science fiction story that has the classic form of a 30s Universal horror film. Robert Lansing's Scott Nelson is an original character, a post-modern Dr. Jekyll who wants only love and a little recognition, but ends up a monster. Even with its rough edges and lowbudget origins, it is more satisfying than many a modern cyberthriller.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, 4D Man rates:
Movie: Good, (and for Science Fiction addicts, Excellent)
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: None
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: March 14, 2000. Street Date: March 14, 2000


Footnotes:

1 The 1936 The Invisible Ray is perhaps the first of the sub-genre of a man transformed by science into a monster, whose touch kills: The Man Made Monster and the little-seen The Hand of Death are other examples. The vampiric idea of Scott Nelson needing to replenish his lifeforce is a new wrinkle, however, a graft from the Dorian Gray variants, where men steal glands to prolong life: The Man in Half Moon Street, The Man Who Could Cheat Death, The Leech Woman. Quantifying this lifeforce is an interesting thought: Does Scott get the same boost from Dr. Carson as he does from the little girl? Or does the younger victim have 'more' lifeforce to give? The concept folded back upon itself in the bookThe Space Vampires, which ended up being made by Tobe Hooper as, whattaya know, Lifeforce.

2 Variety reviewer "Powe." specifically points out the overuse of the color blue in 4D Man. For all we know, Yeaworth's Valley Forge Studio may have been given the paint as a religous donation, and had to use what was available! Or were the Universal release prints simply timed too far to the cold end of the spectrum? Whatever the answer, it's pretty clear that blue-screen techniques weren't used to achieve the special effects! (they require no blues in the elements to be matted)

3 Many older sound jobs, on even big films, are pretty crude by today's audio standards. One typical flaw that anyone can hear is the popping in and out of presences for dialogue lines recorded on less-than-silent locations: a definite hiss accompanies the dialog line but disappears as soon as the actor closes his mouth. The Wonderful Country is one of the most beautiful color films Savant has ever seen, but even in a theater its audio track is pretty disruptive. This isn't restricted to low budgeters ... listen to the barn scene in the James Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service and you'll hear the same problem in the dialogue between George Lazenby and Diana Rigg.

4 The trilling, oscillating musical / sound effect heard whenever Scott Nelson enters his 4D state is another of those wonderful science fiction signature 'noises' from the 50s. Starting with the theremin used to indicate the presence of the Xenomorphs in It Came from Outer Space, other prime examples are the eerie chirping of Them!, and the sizzling crackle that accompanies appearances by Tarantula! Not enough is said about the meaning of these sounds, which rekindle nostalgic memories of seeing these films for the first time, even after repeated viewings. The Japanese seemed to have picked up on this; starting with Gojira,they invented distinctive 'signature sounds' for all of their kaiju eiga.

5 The vision of Scott Nelson directly bombarded in an atomic oven also connects with the demise / creation of the Doctor Manhattan character in the eclectic comic book epic, Watchmen.

6 Apparently John Parker's Dementia became the property of Jack H. Harris, as it shows up as the 'movie within a movie' in The Blob. Perhaps Harris was the one responsible for releasing it as Daughter of Horror, adding the infamous, wonderfully creepy Ed MacMahon narration : "YES, it is I, the DEMON who possessess your SOUL..." Harris wagered that to make any money he'd have to emulate the big boys, with good actors and color, and with Yeaworth's help his gamble paid off bigtime. It didn't work out that way very often, as with Robert Clarke's The Hideous Sun Demon and Beyond the Time Barrier. American International's Sam Arkoff was always waiting to pick the bones of producers with unsold features.


Like SCIENCE FICTION? Try the following SAVANT entries!
Review: DESTINATION MOON, Review: IT HAPPENED HERE, The Ultimate INVADERS FROM MARS, METROPOLIS and STAR WARS, DUNE and David Lynch, DANGER: DIABOLIK, The Uncut THINGS TO COME, THE ANGRY RED PLANET and CineMagic, Jump Cut 1 - FORBIDDEN PLANET, QUATERMASS who?, An Exotic Treat - THE MYSTERIANS!, Those ASTRAL COLLISION Movies, Quatermass and the Pit, The Strange Case of UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD.





DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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