4D Man (1959) and Dinosaurus! (1960) now emerge on gorgeous Blu-ray transfers from Kino Lorber in a 4K splendor looking better than ever. Both pulpy adventures were directed and co-produced by Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr. and produced by Jack H. Harris, who cannily retained the negatives. One is merely entertaining while the other achieves brilliance, and both have been overshadowed (or over-blobbed) by the duo’s first achievement, The Blob (1958).
4D Man is the film stamped with brilliance. My childhood viewing convinced me of its chilling poignance, and here’s one case where adult viewings only expand one’s appreciation. The film has only one flaw, and such a distinctive and endearing one that I may change my mind about it at any moment. Ralph Carmichael provides the most obnoxious “crime jazz” score in film history. Horns begin blaring inappropriately from the opening moments and, just when we’ve managed to forget them, they come blasting in at random points throughout. Maybe they’re what finally drives our hero insane.
It was the best of times and the worst of times for scientists in the 1950s. Their brilliant lab-coated professionalism got tapped to deal with space invaders, giant insects and other sources of mayhem, in cooperation with the efficient men of the military and civil authority, and continually saved the day to receive their due laurels from a grateful nation. At the same time, their eggheaded hubris was responsible for unleashing atomic monsters, teenage werewolves, mutant flies, and all manner of panic in the streets, for which they also received their just desserts.
4D Man enacts American society’s love/hate affair with science by offering two scientist brothers. Scott (Robert Lansing) is the responsible “alpha” brother with a steady job and steady girlfriend, Linda (Lee Meriwether). Linda is more than “the girlfriend”, however, she’s a vivid, articulate presence throughout. The story presents Tony (James Congdon) as the irresponsible, almost ne’er-do-well brother whom Scott bails out when Tony loses his job. In other words, Scott is the “good” brother and Tony the “bad” one. How frustrating for Scott, then, that Linda finds herself attracted to Tony. Scott’s brooding frustration and gradual moral panic and degeneration are brilliantly conveyed by Lansing.
Robot by Thor_Deichmann (Pixabay License / Pixabay)
Upon closer examination, Scott will be revealed as the irresponsible brother, the one with something missing from his stable make-up, the one who doesn’t have his life so together. Resentful of his job (which involves creating an impenetrable compound) and his life, Scott subjects himself to his brother’s private work, an experiment that causes his atoms to vibrate “in the fourth dimension”, thus allowing him to pass through solid objects. In other words, he envies his brother’s more carefree openness. The breakthrough, as it were, makes Scott euphoric, but like other causes of euphoria, it comes with a hell of an addictive monkey on his back.
The extra vibrations drain his energy or life force, which also means the sexual power he wasn’t making use of anyway, and cause premature aging unless he replenishes himself with the force of others, thus becoming a kind of vampire who causes others to wither and die. Just as morally problematic is that he succumbs to temptations, such as robbery, long controlled by his uptight social fears. Access to superhuman power has caused him, unlike Spiderman, to abandon responsibility. In short, we witness the brilliant and responsible Scott turn into a monster before our eyes, as Tony suddenly ascends to the role of reasonable hero.
We don’t wish to give away the more chilling moments of Scott’s moral descent, but its nadir is reached in scenes with little Marjorie Sutherland (Patty Duke). The scenes are understated, and their resonance is all the more potent for it. By the time Scott comes to the end of his arc, he seems literally a moral and physical shell of himself, and his final moments are presented in a powerful image of vivisection (a castration symbol — there, we’ve said it) as he comes up against his final brick wall.
The film is half over before Scott acquires his power, yet what some viewers might consider a talky picture, full of soap opera about the brothers’ romantic triangle and personal issues, is unusually thoughtful and mature and never boring. As historian Richard Harland Smith points out in his typically info-packed commentary, the film is full of sexual tension and implications, never more so than in the cleverly staged final confontation between Scott and Linda. Credit belongs to writers Theodore Simonson (of a theological background) and Cy Chermak, the latter a TV pro who later produced the classic cult series Kolchak: The Night Stalker.
Robert Lansing as Dr. Scott Nelson in 4D Man (IMDB)
Credit also goes to the simple, confident staging of Yeaworth, who directed hundreds of short religious and documentary films and was making this picture, like The Blob, at his personal studios in Pennsylvania. Here he worked with veteran cinematographer Theodore J. Pahl, who spent most of his career in Europe.
Curiously, another movie was made the same year about a man with the same power, although it’s doubtful the makers of 4D Man could have been aware of it. Ladislao Vajda’s West German film, Der Mann geht durch die Wand (“The Man Who Walked Through the Wall“), was a comedy about a “little man” who suddenly discovers a magical ability. It derived from Marcel Aymé’s French story “Le Passe-muraille” (1941), filmed in France under that title in 1951. The story is a gentle liberating fantasy, the opposite of the “be careful what you wish for” tragedy of 4D Man.
A second commentary track by Kris Yeaworth (the director’s son) offers a more personal and relaxed take on the picture. Harris and Meriwether are both interviewed in extras originally produced for a German disc.
After his independent success with The Blob and 4D Man, the latter picked up for distribution by Universal, Harris found himself underwritten by Universal for Dinosaurus!, a story about the lightning-struck resuscitation of a flash-frozen brontosaurus, a tyrannosaurus rex, and a historically anachronistic Neanderthal man on a tropical island. This film’s budget was more than the previous two films combined, and that upgrade is visible on three fronts.
First, the exteriors are shot on location on St. Croix in the Virgin Islands, although the island doesn’t seem to be playing itself (a US territory whose citizens are Americans) but an unnamed French colony so that the bad guy can be a greedy Frenchman. However, the basic premise finds an American company blasting offshore for construction to encourage industrial development and tourism, and that was really happening.
This is presented as ordinary business, welcomed by the locals, while “greed” gets displaced onto the obstructive and exploitive antagonist who literally slaps around women and orphans. He acts as a foil for the Americans, continually drawing the lightning of our criticism while the square-jawed, hairy-chested Yanks carry on and get rewarded with local women. While the bad guy catches any flak that might be headed for the Yanks, his presence embodies and acknowledges those critiques.
Just as American atomic testing had earlier roused Godzilla as a colossal symbol of the atomic age, the Americans’ offshore island blasting leads to the rampage of dinosaurs that threatens the population, so it’s no great reach to read the “development” as inciting the rage of the island’s repressed and buried history. Perhaps this is why the shots of the island’s black population, who must be descendants of slaves, and especially the ancient impassive black man standing in the center of the group, seem to be channeling an inscrutable judgment. When they celebrate the American hero’s victory against a tyrannosaurus by steam-shovel technology, their gestures seem perfunctory at best.
The second sign of money is that the film is shot in color and Cinemascope by the celebrated Stanley Cortez. He indulges some beautiful lighting effects, such as a moment of red-flashed lightning in the middle of a scene and a masterfully composed shot of silhouettes during a blackout. You could hang it on a wall. Cortez was known for Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955), but two less illustrious projects had a more direct bearing on his work here.
E.A. Dupont’s The Neanderthal Man (1953) is yet another film in the template of an over-reaching scientist who regrettably transforms himself into a monster, in this case a Neanderthal out of place in the modern world. Ib Melchior’s color film The Angry Red Planet (1959) combined live action with animation in a gimmick called “Cinemagic”, and this was likely Cortez’s most pertinent recent credential for Harris and Yeaworth, since their movie combines live action with stop-motion animation.
That’s the third sign of money. Although pioneering stop-motion animator Willis O’Brien, famous for The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933), was a “consultant” according to Harris and other interviewees in the extras, he goes uncredited. The actual stop-motion work was done by the team of Tim Baar, Wah Chang and Gene Warren, who would win an Oscar for the effects in George Pal’s The Time Machine (1960).
The stop-motion knock-down drag-outs are grim, bloody and fiery. The brontosaurus may be herbivorous, but he’s no creampuff against the T. Rex, and one can easily imagine little boys of 1960 spitting up popcorn with joy. Two of them, Donald F. Glut and Bill Warren, are interviewed along with Harris in an extra previously produced for a German disc.
Harris states that he retained uncredited science fiction writer Algis Budrys to create a script, resulting in a 600-page effort, and the other interviewees state that he also contacted Alfred Bester. According to the commentary by Yeaworth’s son Kris, the script was rewritten and condensed by his parents. Credited on the script are his mother Jean Yeaworth and future documentarian Dan E. Weisburd.
Perhaps great claims can’t be made for the picture, but it’s more exciting and colorful than certain dinosaur and giant monster pics of its era and reveals sideways glances on colonialism and development amid the running around. We’ve named the above-average contributors, and Ronald Stein’s majestic score is also worthy of praise. One more contributor makes the film memorable, and he’s a cast member who doesn’t speak a word, at least not intelligibly.
Gregg Martell is wonderful as the Neanderthal who confronts a strange new world. He’s puzzled, comical, angry, sometimes joyful. Much screen time is devoted to his semi-humorous discoveries before his heroic rescues and tragic sacrifice, and he’s excellent in all of it. He learns about mirrors, flirts with cross-dressing, and raises issues of gender and “romance” that temporarily alarm our spunky if useless heroine. These scenes bring a dimension of satire, social comment, and even real human warmth into the movie. Viewers care about this character; like the heroine, we’re unnerved and fascinated by his primal “wild card” element.
The poignant “why did the caveman have to die” speech, which was quoted along with clips from The Blob in John Landis’ Schlock (1973), spells out the rueful symbolism in all movies about transplanted cavemen, from the aforementioned The Neanderthal Man to Fred Schepisi’s Iceman (1984), in which an almost nostalgic yearning for primitive simplicities crashes into the realization that they just weren’t made for these times. The Neanderthal, too, symbolizes the victims of progress.
Also in the picture are Ward Ramsey, who looks like the male model “Marlboro Man” he was, according to Kris Yeaworth; Paul Lukather, who spends the picture showing off his assets as second banana; Kristina Hanson as the headstrong yet tripping and fainting heroine with a robust Irish McCalla vibe; Fred Engelberg as the Frenchman with a none-too-steady accent and not-very-French name; Luci Blain as the local “chica” (actually called Chica) abused by him; and Alan Roberts as little Julio, lover of dinosaurs and cavemen and stand-in for the boys in the target audience.
Perhaps these two epics will never surpass the cultural legacy of The Blob, the first in the Yeaworth-Harris trilogy, but they don’t deserve to be forgotten, and 4D Man deserves to be recognized as the classic it is.