The fundamental requirement for enjoying an atomic age horror/sci-fi film is suspension of disbelief. It’s not usually difficult for me to not only accept, but to also embrace, ridiculous scientific actions and nonsensical reactions. However, every once in a while, I see a movie that strikes me as so silly, I can’t see beyond them. This gives me some insight into people far less tolerant than I am that make fun of the movies I love.
4D Man (1959) doesn’t seem like a movie that would break me. I don’t have a problem with experiments that allow Dr. Scott Nelson (Robert Lansing) to phase through solid matter. I reach a stumbling block, though, when he’s able to pull objects through solid matter with him. If he can reach into a mailbox or grocery story window, fine, but how can he pull back out a letter or an apple?
When his brother, Dr. Tony Nelson (James Congdon), who actually pioneered the achievement, says that he willed a pencil to move through a block of solid steel with his mind, you wonder if some kind of mental telepathy is at play. Instead, Scott scoffs at the notion and doesn’t seem to rely on anything other than physical equipment to make it happen. Even less connected to what occurs is the side effect of using the equipment and becoming… 4D: growing prematurely old.
Accept all this and there’s still an issue with the logic of phasing through another person. You’d think as a result Scott would pull out an organ or become tangled in the cardiovascular system. No, his “victims” just grow old and die. I think what’s causing a tougher than normal analysis is the fact that the movie isn’t very likable. I have no reason to justify what happens in order to defend its worthiness.
For example, Congdon is not very good in his role. He takes a comedic approach to the material and even demonstrates physical slapstick when he trips and falls more than once. Why? If he’s just adding to his characterization, it seems like an odd choice. However, his pratfalls serve no purpose to the plot. It cofounds me that Linda Davis (Lee Meriwether) would take one look at Tony and fall head over heels in love.
On the other hand, Tony’s goofy personality is certainly a contrast to Scott’s, who’s a serious grump. During the first part of 4D Man, I noted how good I thought Lansing was in the role. As the movie progressed, though, his performance became more unhinged. Granted, that’s what happens to his character; however, Lansing goes beyond, as if he’s angry as an actor that he’s participating in such a movie.
The screenplay by Theodore Simonson and Cy Chermak, based on an original idea by producer Jack H. Harris, tries to give substance to the story. There’s a subplot about recognition for success of the experiments and whether or not that’s important to Scott. It works better than the soapy backstory between the brothers because Tony has a history of stealing women from Scott. The bones of the movie aren’t strong enough to support all of this.
Then there’s the matter of the special effects. I truly hate to criticize a movie of this era for its shortcomings in cinematography, but the phasing effects could have been better. They’re credited to Bart Sloane, whose only other work was in the movie that preceded this one, its success allowing 4D Man to be made: The Blob (1958.) I don’t know that The Blob is any more believable, but it’s a lot more successful in its attempts.
Written by Thodore Simonson and Cy Chermak
Directed by Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr.
Starring Robert Lansing, Lee Meriwether, James Congdon, Robert Strauss, Edgar Stehli, Patty Duke
RT 85 min.
Home Video Kino Lorber (Blu-ray)
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