An old monster formula props up this fantastic film, but at its heart is a brilliant central idea that excites the imagination. Jack H. Harris’s sophomore picture after The Blob is on the awkward side, but the good stuff is much better than we expect it to be. Ambitious performances by Robert Lansing, Lee Meriwether and James Congdon come through with something unique, with graces we just don’t find in independent Sci-Fi from the late 1950s. And the new Blu-ray rejuvenates the film’s special effects — all it took was a good 4K restoration.
KL Studio Classics
1959 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 85 min. / Street Date August 20, 2019 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Robert Lansing, Lee Meriwether, James Congdon, Robert Strauss, Edgar Stehli, Patty Duke, Guy Raymond, Chic James, Elbert Smith, Jasper Deeter.
Cinematography: Theodore J. Pahle
Film Editor: William B. Murphy
Original Music: Ralph Carmichael
Written by Theodore Simonson, Cy Chermak from an idea by Jack H. Harris
Produced by Jack Harris, Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr.
Directed by Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr.
Ever notice that Hollywood tends to remake the wrong movies? Sci-fi and horror fans keep a short list of almost-great thrillers that ought to be remade, mainly because they had great story ideas that need further development. David Cronenberg is one of the few who undertook a remake for the right reason — re-tooling the original The Fly from the floor up, to create a new classic that could stand outside the original’s shadow. When I see a terrific little movie like The Trollenberg Terror, my first thought is that its imaginative story is begging to be remade, updated and polished. Of course, some elements can’t be reproduced. Who could replace Janet Munro?
The frequently inspired 4D Man is a nostalgic favorite — it made me an early fan of Robert Lansing and Lee Meriwether, but mainly set my head spinning with its notion of a man who can walk through walls. The ambitious Jack H. Harris first tried re-tooling a weird art-house horror film, changing its name and adding a kooky narration. Casting about for a way to make color features on a shoestring, he stumbled across the Valley Forge Studios, where some rural Pennsylvanian religious filmmakers were turning out quality 35mm inspirational short subjects. Their leader was Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr., an idealistic and charismatic minister committed to spreading his beliefs via film. Harris envisioned his own little empire, turning out commercial color features at a fraction of what it would take in Hollywood or New York. Yeaworth provided the facilities and Harris brought in the young actors from New York — including Steve McQueen. By retaining his ownership of the perfect drive-in movie attraction for teenagers, Jack Harris guaranteed himself a lifetime’s income.
Universal offered a two-picture deal, so Harris & Yeaworth bounced back with an 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 screenplay is a dandy little construct worthy of close study.
We can quibble about the execution of 4D Man, but the concept is solid. Brothers Scott and Tony Nelson (Robert Lansing & James Congdon) are scientists with very different personalities. Scott is the underpaid head scientist at Fairview Research Center, where the owner Dr. Theodore Carson (Edgar Stehli), takes all the credit for new discoveries. A humorless workaholic, Scott has used an atomic furnace to create a metal with an atomic structure so dense that it is virtually impregnable. Carson has named it Cargonite, after himself; his publicity ignores Scott. Scott shrugs off the fact that his achievements are being usurped. Girlfriend and lab assistant Linda (Lee Meriwether) urges him to assert himself, but he stubbornly adheres to a defeatist, ‘who cares?’ posture.
Younger brother Tony is Scott’s positively-charged opposite. Fresh from accidentally burning down a college lab, he shows up on Scott’s doorstep, and is set up in a lab of his own. 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 be made to penetrate another without ever touching. So far, he’s been unable to repeat his initial experiment.
The schematic is clear: the scientist brothers’ key projects contradict each other. Tony’s enthusiasm only makes Scott seem less exciting, and Linda is immediately attracted to his lighter personality. Scott sublimates his resentment, withdrawing even further into himself. Not helping are the migraine headaches he suffers, which may be related to his work around the atomic furnace.
The jealous Scott flips out, hijacks his brother’s crude-looking electrical field experiment, and inadvertently transforms himself into the title character, a living 4D object that can penetrate anything at will. The godlike ability allows him to walk through furniture and walls, and reach into locked safes. Unfortunately, every second Scott is in 4D consumes years of his ‘lifeforce,’ leaving him prematurely aged. The only way to save himself is to steal the lifeforce of others. He discovers this by accident: a man drops dead and Scott is partially rejuvenated. The now- deranged scientist becomes a fourth-dimensional vampire, invulnerable while in 4D. And when Scott discovers that his brother and sweetheart are plotting against him, no walls can keep them safe from his killing touch.
4D Man’s character orchestration makes its interesting ideas stand out all the more strongly: 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 the jealous Scott goes haywire and 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 unleashed Mason’s repressed ego, the Fourth Dimension releases Scott Nelson’s desire for sex, riches and power. In a consumer credit nightmare, he must kill repeatedly to replenish his youth. He even loses control over his newfound abilities: his emotions cause him to enter 4D involuntarily. His power is miraculous, but he’s simultaneously a pathetic misfit. It’s a gothic curse crossed with The Organization Man.
The original pattern for much of this is in H.G. Wells’ The Invisble Man. Jack Griffin’s fantastic invisibility brings forth a deranged desire to dominate, a mad doctor trait that became a universal cliché. It probably does represent a basic human truth: the illusion of omnipotence unleashes destructive forces.
Most tales of this kind establish a jumping-off premise and then devolve into repetitious murders. The 1936 The Invisible Ray is perhaps the first of the sub-genre of a man transformed into a monster whose touch kills: Man Made Monster and Hand of Death are other examples. The vampiric idea of Scott Nelson needing to replenish his lifeforce is a graft from the Dorian Gray variants, where people steal glands to prolong life: The Man in Half Moon Street, The Man Who Could Cheat Death, The Leech Woman. The process raises a question: would Scott get the same boost from an older person as he does a child? Or does a younger victim have more lifeforce to give? The ‘lifeforce vampire’ concept folded back upon itself in the book The Space Vampires, which was filmed by Tobe Hooper as, whattaya know, Lifeforce.
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 problem, what he can do seems limitless. Tony cannot follow his brother into the 4th Dimension: he’s brilliant, but his brain just isn’t as ‘together’ as his brother’s. Villainous Roy Parker (Robert Strauss) is an exaggeration of the brothers’ faults: two-faced like Tony, and covetous of all the things Scott wants, including Linda.
The schematic of 4D Man lines up with critic Raymond Dugnat’s ‘paradox cut paradox’ theory of story dynamism. Scott apparently succeeds where Tony failed because his source of power is pure Angst. Great achievers accomplish their feats through force of will. Since Scott’s 4D existence is unsustainable, 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 irresistible force, such as you…”) plunges back into the impenetrable Cargonite representing Scott’s life-negating sterility (“… meets an old unmovable object like me ..”), the issue is resolved. Like Cronenberg’s BrundleFly, Scott becomes one with his creation. What you worship is what you become. Lot’s wife becomes a dead pillar of salt in Sodom and Gomorrah, and Diabolik becomes a ‘dead’ statue of gold.
4D Man may be a model of symmetry, but it is by no means a classic. Jack Harris and Irvin Yeaworth clearly struggle to maintain Hollywood-level production values, while the film’s real asset is its fresh performances. Yeaworth’s scene blocking can be shaky, and he somehow manages to make the charming Meriwether look crosseyed in her very first glamour close-up. There are as many static scenes as there are dynamic ones. But this non-Hollywood effort is refreshing in its lack of slickness. Naive, yes; awkward, yes … but also honest and sincere. A story like this needs lots of exposition, and for the most part does it well. The lab setup and the character dynamics are neatly established. Only later on does some dialogue seem overly declarative.
Robert Lansing was indeed chosen because of his similarity to Steve McQueen. He nicely underplays all the way through, and when called on to act the deranged madman for the finish, comes off very strongly. Likewise Lee Meriwether wins our respect and approval, even when she defects from one brother to the other… Durgnat is correct, this IS almost like a Bible story. Lee Meriwether is of course lovely, but her part is underwritten. Linda’s ‘betrayal’ of the climax is not properly set up, yet it still works for me — it’s like a reverse of the finale of Mickey Spillane’s I the Jury.
Only James Congdon seems to have been pushed too far into histrionics: He has got to be destroyed! I have to stop him! Introduced as sort of a drifter-troubadour of brilliant science, Tony becomes more like a soap-opera character as he wails about his bad record with his brother’s girlfriends. Congdon is unfortunately the one to deliver declarations that are just too spot-on, even for a trailer: “A Man in the Fourth Dimension is indestructible!” This time through, Tony’s flimsy 4D brainwave amplifier gizmo looks pretty pathetic, like a second-rate high school science project. It has the unwanted effect of making Tony seem flaky.
The basic production values at the Valley Forge Studios are quite high. The photography is glossy, even if the art direction is at times a bit strange. Even the Daily Variety review of October 7, 1959 noted that most sets seem painted in hues of blue. It eventually becomes distracting. The Blob staged many night exteriors on tiny interior sets, but this show mostly avoids stagebound claustrophobia. Only here and there do the shortcuts stick out — paintings, a weak model for a building on fire, etc. Actor Robert Strauss may have had to leave the production early, because his Roy Parker character is ‘resolved’ off-screen, with just a disembodied voice.
Sixty years of bad TV prints did no favors to the special ‘4D’ effects, but they hold together much better on this new 4K transfer. The visuals are far more ambitious than Bart Sloane’s previous, clever blobby tricks. 4D Man takes on complicated opticals, combining travelling mattes and animation. Before this show, the best ‘walking through walls’ trick was perhaps in Michael Powell’s highly sophisticated, Technicolor A Matter of Life and Death. Yeaworth only had access to standard New York lab opticals. From what I can see, the 4D trick was created with hand-painted rotoscope mattes. Some shots work better than others, and only a few go haywire, with Robert Lansing’s head dancing against the background. The best illusions add extra detail, such as the matching shadow when Scott reaches into a wall (top image).
The best special effect moments succeed because the action and dramatics are exciting. Scott’s initial penetration of a block of metal is deceptively matter-of-fact, and his panicked reaction fits perfectly. Cut off from circulation, his fingers begin to go grey — we immediately understand his predicament. 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 shows Scott’s hand penetrating the box without matte lines, and doesn’t even look like an optical.
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, he appears to use the old-fashioned cotton-build up technique of Jack Pierce. Lansing’s face wrinkles and furrows while he performs … perhaps it’s exaggerated, but it works for me.
The film’s illusions are also ‘sold’ by a trilling Musical Sound Effect heard whenever Scott enters his 4D state. Is it diegetic, or is it only something that Scott ‘feels’ when he’s in 4D? We pay attention to it because we know that it kills — when Scott approaches Linda in her room, or when it sounds as he begins to kiss her, the tension rises. To stretch the budget, Yeaworth sometimes lets this sound take the place of a visual effect, as when Scott breaks into Linda’s boudoir Caligari-style, perhaps to rape her. Linda runs like blazes downstairs, only to find Scott waiting on her front porch, imitating Tex Avery’s unshakeable Droopy Dog. No SpFX in sight, yet the scene is one of the film’s strongest. Savant’s favorite 4D Man image depicts Scott Nelson using his 4D talent to reach into the locked nuclear reactor, arms outstretched. He’s met by a blinding fission blast not all that different from the Great Whatzit? of Kiss Me Deadly.
Of course, the actors sell these scenes better than any effects could. Dr. Carson is surprised when Scott makes a 4D entrance into a room: “How did you get in?” Robert Lansing’s casual air, hands in his pockets, mumbling, gives the moment its kick, as he proceeds to walk through a chair: “Through the door…”
Forth-billed Robert Strauss had more film experience than the young leads, having starred for Billy Wilder in Stalag 17 and The Seven Year Itch, and with Mickey Rooney in The Atomic Kid and The Bridges at Toko-Ri. Here he’s the dour hack researcher looking to cheat his way into Dr. Carson’s good graces. He’s certainly effective.
Finally, there’s little Patty Duke in her 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 this encounter is curiously under-directed. It plays as if Marjorie is going to be victimized, but the scene ends without emphasis. Whether or not Scott Nelson slays little Marjorie remains unclear to me. I remember a dispute about this issue becoming a big deal fifteen or so years ago on an online discussion board, with Bill Warren, Tom Weaver and others expressing a difference of opinion. Either Yeaworth didn’t do enough with the sequence, or perhaps someone decided to cut the scene short, to better align with (the post-Code version of) Frankenstein.
The least-loved puzzle piece in 4D Man is Ralph Carmichael’s overstated, emphatic jazz score. After a hundred listens it no longer seems strange to me, but I’m in the minority. The ‘sting’ mini-cues intrude even on dialogue scenes in a way appropriate to a UPA cartoon. The Variety review wasn’t kind to the music either, saying that the trend of jazz scores for film was burning out — the big winner was apparently I Want to Live from the previous year. 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. My point of comparison has become Les Baxter’s jazzy music accompaniment for Panic in Year Zero! It certainly gets our attention, yet often seems extraneous, and overpowers the story.
I strongly remember seeing 4D Man’s trailer when my parents took me to Journey to the Center of the Earth early in 1960, on my eighth birthday. 4D’s premise became the source of many a playground argument: when Scott enters 4D, does he retain his mass? If gravity still affects him, why doesn’t he immediately fall to the center of the earth? If not, why doesn’t he float up off the floor? Ah, the great debates of the third grade. The kid with the goriest explanation invariably won.
Somebody really cared: KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of 4D Man puts Jack Harris’s movie back in the pink. Holders of the old (2000) DVD need not have doubts, as the new disc is so much better, there is really no comparison. The bright 4K scan brightens up everything and improves the show where it needs it most — the opticals are much less grainy and the matte lines less obtrusive. I was too young to remember it clearly on a screen, but it never looked this good on TV or cable broadcasts. Yes, the colors can be harsh and uneven, but cameraman Theodore Pahle’s lighting is well done for the suspense scenes. The widescreen framing vindicates some of ‘Shorty’ Yeaworth’s directing choices as well. The scenes in the open greenery have a nice feeling of color and space, and the setup in the lab — the elevated control room, the concrete block reactor — works quite well. Kino’s encoding starts off with a Warners logo and fanfare — which for me was a head-scratcher, until Gary Teetzel said that a German poster shows a Warners logo.
Kino cared about the extras as well — we get two commentaries and a friendly video interview with Jack H. Harris (who passed away just two years ago). I expected Harris to be more coarse, but he comes off as charming; he describes setting up the insurance policy so that he could put a flyer on posters offering to pay a million dollars to anybody who can duplicate what’s seen in the movie. Lee Meriwether sits for an interview as well, and we love her right from the start. She’s open and candid about the working situation on 4D Man, when everybody lived out at the Valley Forge compound during filming. She has kind words for Jack Harris as well.
Yeaworth’s son Kris provides a personal take on the picture … explaining everything from the family POV, with lots of personal observations on people and individual shots. For instance, right off the top Kris tells us that Bart Sloane painted over photos, for what we think are matte paintings. Valley Forge was 160 acres with sixty buildings dating back to the Civil War, so the actors could just move in. The whole thing sounds like a summer camp housing a film studio. Kris implies that simple economics dictated Roy Parker’s off-screen demise — the movie could only afford actor Robert Strauss for a few days. He also points out where Ralph Carmichael’s soundtrack music repurposes cues from The Blob.
Weighing in with a thoughtful stream of information and insights is second commentator Richard Harland Smith, who has all the usual facts at his disposal plus plenty of background on the major players. The unusual Valley Forge Studio was built in the 1950s to use film to spread faith. Having experience in the New York stage scene, Smith imparts a wealth of information on the actors, along with extra detail for Yeaworth’s stock company, several of which are familiar from The Blob. Smith suggests that the writers may have tried to add a Jack Kerouac flavor to Tony’s initial rootlessness.
An image gallery and a trailer round out the package. Confirmed monster, horror & sci-fi completists will be interested in this release. Jack H. Harris’s pictures were so commercially attractive that he was able to avoid the biggest pitfall for ’50s independents, finding a major distributor without taking a heavy loss. American-International Pictures’ Sam Arkoff specialized in acquiring productions that couldn’t find takers, that had to sell out cheap to pay off their loans. Harris’s efforts made the grade AND he retained full title. That’s a genuine Hollywood success story.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Commentaries with Richard Harland Smith and Kris Yeaworth; video interviews with Lee Meriwether and Jack H. Harris. Image Gallery and Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: August 10, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson