Co-producer Jack H. Harris' keen interest in science-fiction led to the development of a script about a man who could pass through solid matter, and what's intriguing about the film is that the focus isn't on the various escapades of the affected scientist after he's discovered his new powers (you get a bit of it in a series of montages), but his disintegrating relationship with his brother, the girl he intended to marry, and his murderous streak that's the only method by which he can rejuvenate himself after using his powers.
Harris had wanted to cast Steve McQueen again after using the actor in The Blob, but with McQueen's price now much higher, stage and TV actor Robert Lansing was plopped into the role, and although there's a passing physical resemblance to McQueen, Lansing does a credible job as the lead scientist of a research team working for a credit-stealing corporate bigwig.
Lansing 's brooding, reticent persona plays well off James Congdon's buoyant version of the scientist's equally brilliant younger brother, and many of the duo's simple scenes not only bubble with chemistry (ahem), but predate the now-standard convention of pairing of two opposite personalities in modern sci-fi scripts: the cocky, reckless, girl-loving jock; and the serious-obsessive egghead.
Tossed between the brothers is the team's colleague, Linda, played by gorgeous Lee Meriwether in her feature film debut. Linda intriguingly starts off as a Howard Hawksian gal who tussles with the boys and is just as aggressive and hard-working, but her character becomes marginalized around the midpoint as the focus shifts towards the brothers and a jealous co-worker; she becomes pivotal in the final scene, but by then she's lost her own cocky edge, and is more or less the resident babe who fractures the brothers' relationship and worsens Lansing's dementia and jealousy when he begins to steal as a means to lure his unrequited love to the altar.
Director/co-producer Irvin Yeaworth pretty much avoids any camera movement, but his static shots are compensated by the strong performances, a script that takes several fresh turns, and some really clever effects – some optical, some practical – that have Lansing passing through solid matter. (The best scene is the first time his hand penetrates steel, and his painful struggle to undue the damage before realizing part of the power resides in his brainwaves.)
There's a few silly conceits – the theft of Congdon's notes is handled with childish explanatory dialogue, and the Congdon/Meriwether romance happens way too fast – but 4D Man is one of those neat little sci-fi thrillers that sustains attention, and could be remade with greater commentary on a primal power discovered amid today's current technologically advanced society, and someone's egomaniacal efforts to subvert legal and ethical practices.
Image's DVD is taken from an adequate print, but it's no Criterion transfer; the emphasis on blues is muted by the less than sharp source material which only radiates deeply saturated colours during some blazing outdoor scenes.
The mono sound mix is clear, and Ralph Carmichael's orchestral jazz score is either the weirdest choice for a sci-fi flick, or a brilliant attempt to match non-melodic and improv chunks with the film's dramatic peaks and valleys. Buried in the score are a few repeating motifs and phrases, but Carmichael's music is an extreme use of big band orchestral jazz in a genre accustomed to orchestral dissonance and jazzy themes, much like the dynamic The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957).
The DVD contains zero extras, and it's a pity the film hasn't been given the Criterion treatment, with commentaries or interviews of the film's mix of veteran character actors, TV actors, and several up-and-comers, such as Patti Duke as a tween snot, before her appearance in The Miracle Worker (1962) and The Patty Duke Show (1963-1965).
Producer Harris and director Yeaworth would re-team for a final production, Dinosaurus! before ending their partnership, with the latter returning to religiously themed filmmaking.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan