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Monday, July 6, 2009

4D Man

While a bit obscure, 4D Man (4D for short) is more of a low A-grade movie than a B-movie. For one thing, it's shot in color. It has some A-grade actors, and some cleanly done optical special effects. As in many sci-fi films, the technology isn't the star, but a plot device to propel a larger human drama. In this case, it gives the main character a special power. How he handles (or mishandles) that power is the meat of the tale.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Tony Nelson is talented scientist who is obsessed with his research, to the point of having a hard time keeping a job. He is trying repeat an earlier fluke success at getting one material to pass through another. (a pencil through steel) He travels to see his brother, Scott Nelson (Robert Lansing). Scott heads up a research lab trying to make a metal stronger than steel -- Cargonite. Scott convinces Tony to accept a job at his lab, but this only complicates the social scene. Scott was about to propose to co-worker-scientist Linda. Instead, Linda falls in love with Tony. Frustrated at all this, Scott goes to the lab late one night and gets into Tony's secret apparatus. He manages to get it to work. His hand passes through the steel. Meanwhile, another lab scientist, Roy, has stolen Tony's notes and is trying to sell the facility's director on the idea, so he can be a chief scientist himself. When Scott and Tony re-try the experiment in the lab, it works, even though the equipment wasn't working. Scott has "the power" all by himself. He tells Tony that he doesn't want anyone to know just yet. A newspaper headline tells of a bank robbery. The next morning, Scott sees that he's aged noticeably. Passing through matter ages him. He rushes to a friend's apartment for help, but when he touches the friend on the shoulder, the friend drops dead, his body aging to a gray shriveled corpse. Scott, however, was young again. His special power also saps life from others. He hides the amplifier so no one else can share his power. Things quickly unravel. Scott confronts his credit-stealing boss and saps him. Scott tries to find solace in a bar, with a floosie, but kills her with a kiss. The police know there's a killer on the loose. Tony tells the police all about it. The police cannot stop Scott, however. He shifts through walls, touches (and kills) policemen, and even a hail of bullets cannot stop him. He just shifts himself and the bullets pass through him. Scott finds out that Tony is trying to build another amplifier, so returns to the lab. Tony, Linda and the police try to kill Scott by turning on the reactor while he's inside it. (this is where Scott hid the amplifier) This fails because he is invincible when shifted. Everyone but Linda flees. Scott tries to talk her into running away with him. While in an embrace, she shoots him with the gun the detective left behind. Unshifted Scott is mortally wounded, but defiantly shouts his invincibility. To prove it, he throws himself into the Carbonite reactor, slowly disappearing into it's walls. The End (?)

Why is this movie fun?
The premise and human-interest angle are interesting and well done. The A-level actors do a good job making their characters believable. Robert Lansing does an excellent job with Dr. Scott Nelson -- both his frustrated awkward "before" self and the tormented-yet-maniacal "after" self. Given how many later movies (or TV shows) would take up the idea of people being able to pass through walls, etc., it's fun to see an early version.

Cold War Angle
This movie isn't an allegory of the Cold War. There is an oblique connection to the dangers-of-science sub-genre. A background element of the Cold War years, is the research lab working on improved materials for the military. Nelson's work isn't with any nuclear weaponry, but how it goes dreadfully is still an understated cautionary tale about how even innocent research can create a killer.

Phase Two -- The quasi-science behind the premise, is that Scott can (at will) shift the "time" of his body relative to objects, permitting him to pass through them. The more he does this, the faster it ages him. While fanciful, this has a plausibility. The portrayal of "time" as a life force which he can then absorb from others has no plausibility, but it makes for a good plot device.

Drain the Life -- An interesting plot device is how Scott Nelson must drain the life from people in order reverse his own rapid aging. He does this by simply "touching" (merging) with them. The trope of the living sacrificed to prolong another's life, is not unique. It got (and gets) used in low-B movies like She Demons ('58) in which a mad scientist extracts hormones from young women (turning them into ugly demons) in order to keep his sick wife alive. In 4D, however, the "monster" drains life from them by a mere touch. This is a fascinating preview of the Wraith in the Stargate TV series (2005) -- race of beings who must "feed" on living humans in order to survive. The idea still has legs.

Power Corrupts -- Another plot aspect which is not unique to 4D is how the man who acquires some amazing power can't handle it. For the sci-fi world, this appeared in H.G. Wells' novel "The Invisible Man." His special feature tempted him into tyranny. Once a man feels immune to the hand of justice, he commits crimes with impunity. Scott Nelson is no different in 4D. We see his morality drop away and his total human selfishness take control. He gets professional revenge on his credit-stealing boss. He robs a bank and tries to induce LInda to run away with him. At the end, he shouts, "I'm invincible! Nothing can hurt me!" with a well acted mixture of defiance, denial (he'd just been shot) and pleading. An interesting little human psych study of how man might behave if he no longer fears punishment.

Gray Midas -- An intriguing little twist amid the plot was how Scott's power was not totally under his control. By force of will, he could "turn on" his time-shift to pass through walls, but when he stopped willing it, objects were solid to him. At one point, he's trying to grab the door knob to a bar, but keeps passing his hand through it. At that moment, he wanted to be "normal" but his power was not so completely under his control. A little while later, when he wanted some companionship and kissed the B-girl, she screams in pain and turns into an old woman, then dies. Scott was becoming a sort of King Midas who ruins everything he touches. This adds a degree of pity to the character. With the "cool" power, he could never be normal again.

Blob Brother --4D's producer, Jack Harris, and director, Irvin Yeaworth brought us The Blob in late 1958. 4D has some family resemblance. Color, big-name stars, and brassy jazz score. 4D and The Blob may have been shot together in '57. Young Patty Duke plays a bit part of a landlady's daughter, but she looks maybe ten years old -- noticeably younger than she was in 1959. Universal may have intended to release The Blob and 4D Man together, but opted to spread out the releases for better revenue.

Stop the Music -- The score in 4D is heavy-handed brass jazz band fodder. Such jazz was pretty typical stuff of 50s movies which held the Rat Pack and Las Vegas show scene as the pinnacle of cool. The score of 4D seems like a cross between a 007-wanabe movie and the Pink Panther -- but without any of Mancini's style. Given the rather dark story line, the loudly perky jazz seems out of place. Instead of enhancing the story, it intrudes, like someone talking loudly in the theater while you try to watch the flick. Unless the viewer is a fan of such brassy nightclub jazz, it's more likely to be annoying than admired.

Bottom line? 4D is worth the time. It's a modern Midas tale reasonably well done. The science is weak or a tough stretch, but the story can be enjoyed anyway.


Sidewalk Universe said...

Your write ups and analysis of each movie is excellent! Thanks

Nightowl said...

Glad you like them. There's plenty of 50s movies here. I know I've really enjoyed watching them all. (some several times)

Le Parapluie Rouge said...

Hey there!

Great blog!

I was wondering if you could leave me some suggestions of the best classic sci-fi (in your opinion). I am really looking for stuff with a great concept (like The Incredibly Shrinking Man, The Man with X-Ray Eyes etc) or films that have great visuals or great visual sequences (like 2001, Metropolis, Altered States)


Keep up the good work!


Nightowl said...

Hi Dan,
"Best" lists are quite subjective, but here goes my quick take:

Most Significant 50s Sci-fi Movies:
- Destination Moon ('50)
- War of the Worlds ('53)
- Gozilla ('54)
- Creature From the Black Lagoon ('54)
- Forbidden Planet ('56)
- Invasion of the Body Snatchers ('56)
- The Fly ('58)

These films were BIG in their impact on American culture and the sci-fi sub-culture.

I'll post later today on the questions of concepts or visuals.

Le Parapluie Rouge said...

Thanks, that's a great list. I've seen all of these except Destination Moon which I'll track down.

Any thoughts of concept/visuals movies?



Nightowl said...

Yes, I did have some thoughts on visuals. In fact, I posted my most recent post as a list of MY top 10. Check it out: classicscfi.blogspot.com

Let me know how my list stacks up against yours.

The question of concept is another matter. I'll post a list of my top 10 by concept soon. Some of the coolest concepts didn't make a big boxoffice impact, nor have great visuals.

Le Parapluie Rouge said...

Great, thanks for that.

Yeah, that's why I was interested in seeing the separate lists as the way I see it a film can be great even if it has no budget, relatively poor acting and made no money if it has an interesting or original concept, such as The 4D Man.

I look forward to seeing the list