Friday, June 07, 2019

4-D Man (1959)

An interesting little science fiction horror film from the team behind The Blob, 4-D Man has probably failed to claim the same sort of cult status due to its lack of megastars-to-be in the cast and a less memorable monster.  But, while it doesn't boast a young Steve McQueen in the lead, it does give film debuts to Robert Lansing and Lee Merriwether, excellent performers who became TV stalwarts.  Moreover, while its monster might not be as spectacular as the title menace of The Blob, it is well executed and, while the film is on, seems far more plausible.  Opting for a slow build up rather than shock tactics, the title monster is a long time appearing, with quite a bit of the film's running time spent on introducing the main characters and establishing the background of internal politics at the research lab most of the plot revolves around.  Indeed, it these character relationships and the office politics which drive the plot more than any of its characters quest for scientific discovery.

Scientist Robert Lansing has successfully developed and tested an apparently impenetrable material, with potential uses in the defence industry, but, being only an employee of the lab he works at, gets little of the credit.  Indeed, the material itself, Cargonite, is named after his boss, the lab's owner, Dr Carson, rather than himself.  At the same time, his chief assistant is pushing for his own team and projects.  In addition to his professional woes, the arrival of Lansing's brother, also a scientist, creates problems in his personal life as his fiance, also one of his assistants, falls for the brother.  The brother, though, also brings with his his own research pertaining to creating a '4-D state' in matter, allowing solid objects to penetrate and pass through each other.  Unfortunately, the brother's irresponsibility, (his experiments had succeeded in burning down his previous lab, leaving him unemployed), has prevented him from either advancing his work, or his career. 

Inevitably, out of frustration, Lansing decides to play around with his brother's equipment, unexpectedly succeeding in passing his had through a steel block.  When he demonstrates this achievement to his brother, the latter points out that, this time, the amplifying equipment wasn't switched on - Lansing had created the 4-D state of his own volition.  This, it seems, has to do with the amount of radiation he has absorbed during the Cargonite experiments.  Lansing, still disgruntled by the lack of recognition and reward for his work, starts to use his powers for personal gain, robbing a jewellery store by passing his hand through the glass of the window and robbing a bank by walking through the wall and into the vault.  Unfortunately, using these powers prematurely ages him, but he quickly finds that he can reverse this by passing his hands into other people, absorbiing their life force and prematurely ageing and killing them.  In a parallel sub-plot, the jealous chief assistant has stolen the brother's notes and is trying to pass them off as his own work in order to secure funding and a research team from Carson, thereby potentially robbing Lansing for any credit on the 4-D research.  Inevitably, the police, alerted by the brother, decide to hunt down Lansing, but he proves elusive, due to his abilities.  Ultimately, Lansing faces his brother in a final conflagration at the lab, having already disposed of Carson and the chief assistant.

A big part of any film of this type's success is going to depend on the efficacy of its special effects and, in the case of the 4-D Man, they are surprising good.  Lansing's transitioning through solid objects is both effective and subtle, in keeping with the film's whole approach, which focuses upon establishing a convincing and realistic background to its action.  Indeed, its portrayal of research scientists as harassed corporate employees rather than the usual idealistic academics or government employees of most fifties science fiction movie adds a sobering dose of realism to proceeding.  These scientists pursue new projects not due to a yearning to add to human knowledge, but to keep their jobs - it is the only way they can get continued funding.  It is notable that the scientist in the film who does try to pursue his research for its own sake and outside of official, corporate, channels - Lansing's brother - succeeds only in destroying his lab, livelihood and reputation.  Lansing, by contrast, follows the rules and achieves his objectives, but misses out on the credit and money.  Although driven professionally, Lansing is otherwise passive, avoiding confrontation and failing to fight either for recognition or his relationship with his fiance.  His non-corporate brother, however, although often slapdash and irresponsible in his experiments, is far more driven in pursuing both his scientific and personal objectives.

Lansing's performance in the lead role is interesting, early on he plays it so low key and laid back that he seems, at times, comatose.  But as the film progresses, this approach pays off, making his transformation into the more driven, selfish and vengeful '4-D Man' all the more effective.  To his credit, even as his character becomes increasingly unhinged and extreme in his actions, Lansing never quite lose sight of his humanity, allowing the audience to retain some sympathy for him right to the end.  While, in the final analysis, 4-D Man tells the familiar fifties science fiction parable of how power corrupts, it does it well.  It is surprisingly unsensational in its telling of the tale, focusing more on character and plot that spectacular effects and ravening monsters,but is all the better for that.  There's nothing particularly innovative about Irvin Yeaworth's direction, but is highly efficient, marshaling the story's elements effectively and pushing it all along smoothly and at a reasonable pace.  He deploys his special effects set-pieces sparingly, adding to their effectiveness, these outre elements contrasting nicely with the neatly ordered corporate blandness of the settings, both in the labs and the characters' homes.  One curious aspect of the production, though, is the use of a jazz-orientated score, which never seems to quite sit right with the action.  Nonetheless, 4-D Man is, overall, an enjoyable and surprisingly subtle piece of fifties science fiction.



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