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The 4th Man

review by Anthony D.

Studio: Anchor Bay Entertainment

Running Time: 102 Minutes

Starring Jeroen Krabbe, Renee Soutendijk, Thom Hoffman

Written by Gerard Souteman

Directed by Paul Verhoeven

Retail Price: $29.98

Features: Director Commentary, Theatrical Trailer, Talent Bios, Storyboard Art

Specs: 1.66:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, Dolby Digital Mono, English Subtitles, Chapter Search

Gerard Reve is a man with a problem, or two...maybe even three. You see, Reve may or may not be "The 4th Man," in director Paul Verhoven's symbol-laden thriller. Based on a novel by Gerard Reve (!), this is a stylish, erotic, Hitchcockian film made with a European sensibility which would garner a NC-17, if not X-rating were it to be filmed in Hollywood. "The 4th Man" was my own introduction to Verhoven, whose American career leaves me cold with the inanities of "Showgirls," "Hollow Man," and, yes, "Basic Instinct." Verhoven captured me with "The 4th Man" as well as his other Dutch films ("Turkish Delight" Soldier of Orange" "Spetters"), and I have carefully sought out any and all his films with a passion. Even if it weren't my initial trek into Verhoven's filmmaking, "The 4th Man" would still have been a very special film.

Jeroen Krabbe carries the film as Gerard, an alcoholic, bisexual novelist who becomes entangled in a web of dreams and violent reality when he takes up temporary residence with a seductive widow (the impossibly irresistible Renee Soutendijk) who awakens his bisexual longings, but who may have other plans for him. Tossed into the mix is a mysterious man who appears in Reve's dreams, and also happens to be Christine's German lover (Thom Hoffman).

Relying on references to Hitchcock films, with shades of "Shadow of a Doubt," "Notorious," and most noticeably, "Spellbound's" Dali-designed dream sequences, the film holds sway over the viewer with its memorable mixture of murder, sex and reverie. Not a film for the faint hearted, "The 4th Man" conjures up images once seen, not easily forgotten: a spider spinning a web around an iconic crucifix, a blue slicker clad woman with red roses, a red Speedo-wearing Christ on the cross, three bovine carcasses dripping bloodily into milk tins, showers of red rose petals obscuring the view, and acres upon acres of naked male and female flesh. Gerard's descent into his hell is evident in the film's opening scene as he rises, naked from the waist down, from bed and goes down the steps into the parlor where his male lover is playing a violin. Gerard shakes with alcohol withdrawal as his hands reach out to a bra left hanging in the bathroom, and taking the bra attempts the strangulation of his lover. But the strangulation is only a daydream - - the first of many reversals of reality versus reverie that "The 4th Man" has up its sleeve. Verhoeven carries through further still when he reveals a dream within a dream in one of the film's more violent episodes, as Gerard dreams of the mysterious woman in blue, and his own castration at the hands (and scissors) of Christine. (OUCH!)

The crux of the film is whether or not Christine is a "Black Widow," who has murdered her three previous husbands, and to whether Gerard or Herman (Hoffman) will be her next victim. All clues point to her being a murderess, whether symbolically as in the flickering neon sign outside of her seaside residence which in Dutch spell out "spider" when on the fritz, and "sphinx" when working properly. Christine is indeed an enigmatic character as the sphinx reference will bear out, and Soutendijk is properly as beautiful and enigmatic as Egypt's own Great Sphinx. This is one actress who could easily make the transition from foreign films to Hollywood product in one easy trans-Atlantic flight. Her performance may indeed carry the film, but she certainly benefits from the commitment which Krabbe and Hoffman bring to their roles and from Verhoeven's sure-handed direction.

Don't be alarmed by the total darkness at the beginning of the program, these thirtysome seconds enable the viewer a chance to settle back for the remarkable feature which is to follow. Anchor Bay Entertainment has achieved the nearly unthinkable task of presenting "The 4th Man" in an anamorphically enhanced, close to pristine production which fully captures the film's deliberate color and lighting. Opening credits aside, it would be very difficult to find fault in this stunning presentation. Properly framed at 1.66:1 (a standard European aspect ratio), "The 4th Man" practically leaps off the screen. A story which would have worked effectively in black and white (as the flashback sequences in "Dead Again" did), is made all the more lifelike with Verhoevon's directorial choices in the color realm. Of course, the vision is not entirely Verhoeven's: the cinematography is by Jan de Bont, who is now recognized as an action director here in these United States. Accurately rendered colors are a necessity where this film is concerned, and Anchor Bay's presentation holds up admirably. Even with the strange lighting choices, and the use of multiple-filtered shots, these colors shine through with a trueness unique to the digital format. Watching "The 4th Man" in a completely darkened room, I perceived very little, if any grain evidenced even in exterior night scenes. The contrast level is such that even diffused lighting effects are never problematic. Flesh, and there's an awful lot of it on display, is rendered as accurately as the filtered camera work will allow - - whether the hero is looking sort of green with alcohol poisoning, or being bathed in other-worldly neon glow. Reds are remarkably stable, whether the red be the blood-dripping carcasses or the swimwear sported by "Herman/Christ" in a scene which could never be shown in an American made film (see Chapters 9 and 17, respectively).

"The 4th Man's" Dolby Digital mono soundtrack is serviceable, though nothing spectacular. Bass response is quite good, as those few seconds in darkness at the start verify. Once the dialogue begins, it's all in Dutch, anyway....but the musical score is strong, with hints of Wagner, and shades of Bernard Herrmann.

Anchor Bay has thankfully put as much effort into their special features as they have into the feature itself. Paul Verhoeven delivers an energetic scene specific audio commentary which elaborates on the symbolism of the film, the actors themselves and the influence of Hitchcock on the final product. I enjoyed listening to Verhoeven, and look forward to hearing his commentaries on the rest of his foreign language films. The Original Theatrical Trailer is nearly five minutes long, and keeps the film's mystery intact. Text Talent Files are given for Jeroen Krabbe, Renee Soutendijk, and Verhoeven, and these files are more extensive than most, giving complete biographies and filmographies for all. Beautifully presented, accompanied by reference shots from the film, are Paul Verhoeven's Original Storyboard Art several pages of the director's sketches.

Also noteworthy is the inclusion of a two-page essay on the making of "The 4th Man," which can be found by removing the cover art from its protective sleeve. Written incisively by one Mark Wickum, whose notes detail the casting choices, the career of Verhoeven and the works of writer Gerard Reve.

Viewers who think they know Paul Verhoeven from his American films will be quite surprised by "The 4th Man." This was the film that brought him to Hollywood, where his excursions into sci-fi ("RoboCop" "Starship Troopers"), and sex ("Showgirls" "Basic Instinct") would wow audiences with their audacity. With the exception of "RoboCop," "The 4th Man" actually breaks the envelop which his other American films could only push. Verhoeven is one director I would like to see return to his roots, physically or cinematically, where his boundless imagination wouldn't be hindered by American Puritanism. Hitchcock fans as well, should check out this remarkable hommage, as it plays just as well as an unfettered Hitchcock production would have. For an intellectual suspense film, "The 4th Man" is an oasis in the desert of sinister cinematic treasures. An evening of erotic nightmares, and stark mysteries awaits for those willing to see just how brilliant a director Paul Verhoeven can be when working without the impositions of a studio-made product.

(4.5/5 - NOT included in final score)




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