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Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Four Sided Triangle

This British film has more thoughtful depth than the average B-movie. Centering on the idea of man creating life, it has an affinity to the Frankenstein mythos, but without the horror. Completed in 1952, it reached American audiences in '53. Four Sided Triange (FST) didn't leave a big impression in American sci-fi culture. This may be because it did not have the horror and ugly rampaging monster.

The title is an allusion to the phrase "love triangle." The triangle is between Bill, Robin and Lena. It becomes four-sided when Bill creates a duplicate Lena so he can have her too. FST was Hammer Films' first modest venture into sci-fi. They would go on to become more famous in the horror genre.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Bill and Robin are best friends as boys. Lena is their friend too. When they grow up, both become brilliant scientists. Lena, however, was taken to America with an aunt. When she returns as a beautiful young woman, she's despondent over her failure to amount to anything. Doc, a mentor-friend to them all since childhood, convinces her to help Bill and Robin with their experiment. She does and finds purpose. The boys have created The Reproducer -- a room full of equipment which can reproduce anything. Robin is highly altruistic about how the Reproducer will prevent shortages of rare medicines, etc. Robin's father and his government connections secure government sponsorship of a Reproducer program. At the celebration party, Robin and Lena announce their engagement. Bill is crushed. He's loved Lena since childhood, though Lena always was partial to Robin. While Robin and Lena are in London dealing with the government, Bill steps things up a notch to make the Reproducer duplicate living things. It has missteps, but he finally solves it with post-reproduction electrical stimulation and blood pumping to stimulate the heart into re-beating. His plan all along was to reproduce Lena so he could have her too. At first Doc refuses to be a part of it, but relents. Lena returns from London. Bill convinces her to allow herself to be duplicated. The experiment succeeds. Duplicate Lena, whom Bill names Helen, is an exact copy. She has Lena's memories and every feeling -- including her love for Robin. Helen tries to ignore this and be Bill's companion, but she can't keep it up. Bill tries electro-shock therapy to try to erase her memories. At the conclusion of the treatment, the lab catches on fire. Robin (just returned from London) rushes into the burning barn and carries out one of the women, but which one? The other and Bill are lost in the fire. In the hospital, he finds out that he saved Lena after all. Happy ending.

Why is this movie fun?
This is a much more cerebral story than one usually finds in B-movies. There are many interesting puzzle twists that the movie doesn't have time to explore, but are fun to ponder on. Instead of the usual mad scientist trying to create life for devious reasons, we have a tormentedly lonely scientist trying to hang onto the love he can't have. This angle has much more pathos to it.
The barn-lab is a visual treat. It's all the pre-computer science stuff of Dr. Frankenstein's lab, but without the sinister pall. Here were (almost literally) two guys in a garage, inventing the amazing out of surplus lab equipment and bailing wire. That has charm.
Also of interest is what may be the first appearance of a matter duplicator in sci-fi. This will show up again in The Fly in '58. It would become commonplace in the food-creator units aboard the Enterprise in Star Trek.

Cold War Angle
There is nothing nuclear or hinting at soviet-angst. The underlying story is the attempt at reclaiming lost love, not war.

Notes
Weak Science -- Sci-fi has never been too worried about the "realities" of science. So, it's not at all unusual that the premise behind Bill and Robin's machine doesn't work out neatly. They say the Reproducer creates matter out of energy. Physics calculates that it would take hundreds of kilotons of energy to create a mere pound of matter. A barn full of old transformers couldn't even get close. Who cares. It's science fiction. Just assume that Bill and Robin have found some way to tap and channel massive amounts of power and let the plot run.

Franken-kind -- The underlying premise in FST is akin to Frankenstein -- a scientist bent on creating life. Their motives are different, as are their results, but they both raise similar issues. Just where does the newly created being fit into the pre-existing world? What kind of rights does a duplicate have? Bill is a kind-hearted, though romantically lonely, Frankenstein. Consider Bill as the mythic Greek sculptor Pygmalion who falls in love with his creation, and the statue brought to life as the woman Galatea. The trope of man creating his mate.

Dual Scientists -- Bill and Robin represent two faces of "science". Robin is blatantly driven by altruism. He wants to reproduce rare medicines and duplicate beautiful art so the world can benefit. Bill is driven, but with motives less obvious. In the end, he uses his genius for selfish gain. Therein lies a subtle moral to the tale. Selfish science will fail.

(Too) Subtle Paradoxes -- Perhaps it's a trait of British screenplay writing, but FST has some odd paradoxes which make little sense on the surface to many American viewers (who have grown accustomed to shoot-outs, chase scenes and explosions). A closer watching, however, sheds the necessary light.
- Why would Lena and Doc agree to the Reproducing? = Lena was deeply fond of Bill, her friend since childhood, just not in the romantic way. Out of that deep friendship, she wanted to help her despondent friend. Doc, an ersatz father, says, while trying to convince her, "You could make Bill happy without jeopardizing anything with Robin." Two well-intentioned friends trying anything to help.
- Why would Helen cooperate and "date" Bill? = Helen was a copy of Lena after Lena knew all about the plan and agreed to it. Thus, Helen was Lena trying to make her sad friend happy. She could pretend for awhile (the beach, the boat, etc.) but eventually, her heart could no longer overrule her head.
- Why did Helen try to kill herself? = There was foreshadowing that Lena had a melancholy streak in her. There was talk of suicide then. "I didn't ask to be brought into the world, so I have a right to leave it when I want." In Lena, it was gloom over not finding a purpose. Helen realized that she could not fulfill her purpose (forget Robin and love Bill). She also knew that the world could not contain TWO Lenas that love the one Robin.
- Why would Helen agree to have her memories erased? = Since she already displayed a suicidal streak, this isn't really all that mysterious. It's one last chance to succeed at her goal of making Bill happy, AND solve the 2 Lenas / 1 Robin problem.

Spiritual Angles -- The movie opens with a quote from the Bible. "God hath made man upright, but they have sought out many inventions." (Ecclesiastes 7:29) God provides what man needs, but man keeps trying to get what he wants by various schemes. This fits Bill perfectly. The end quote is: "You shall have joy or you shall have power, said God: you shall not have both." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson. Here is the moral of the story. Bill had power. Robin had joy. Bill could not have both.

Bottom line: It took a lot of digging to find a copy of FST. It's not a particularly mainstream movie. For a fan of 50s sci-fi films that make you think, FST is worth checking out.

2 comments:

Jerry said...

Wow, what an incredible site. Fascinating stuff! I'm amazed that you haven't been "found" by others yet. You need to get the word out, man! See if some other sci-fi sites won't link to you.

I'm a casual reader of science fiction. The extent of my contact with this sort of science fiction is old Star Trek episodes and especially the original Doctor Who series. Your blog is inspiring me to go out and rent some of these films, though! I love your commentary connecting the films to their social context. Very engaging reading. You ought to self-publish a book when you have enough posts, too.

Nightowl said...

Hey Jerry,
thanks for the kind words. Sorry I didn't catch your post when you posted it. I am trying to get the word out, but feel free to spread the word too. Old sci-fi is great.