Monday, 23 September 2013

Four Sided Triangle (1953)

A thought-provoking and engaging film despite its low budget constraints and disappointing ending.

Director: Terence Fisher
Producer: Michael Carreras, Alexander Paal
Written by Paul Tabori
Based on William F. Temple’s novel
Music: Malcolm Arnold
Cinematography: Reg Wyer
Editing: Maurice Rootes
Studio: Hammer Film Productions
Running time: 81 minutes


Barbara Payton: (Lena Maitland/Helen) 
James Hayter: (Dr. Harvey)
Stephen Murray (Bill Leggat)
John Van Eyssen: (Robin Grant)
Percy Marmont: (Sir Walter)
Glyn Dearman: (Bill as a child)
Sean Barrett: (Robin as a child)
Jennifer Dearman: (Lena as a child)
Kynaston Reeves: (Lord Grant)
John Stuart: (Solicitor)
Edith Saville: (Lady Grant)


Four Sided Triangle is a story involving a love triangle which soon develops into a four sided love triangle with the addition of a complicating fourth side. The film is in the tradition of Frankenstein-type films in which a man almost takes on the role of God and creates life with terrible consequences for himself and those around him.

Cloning Clip

Warning: Spoilers Follow below

Preparing The Ground For Planting

Four Sided Triangle opens with credits behind which we see a pan of the English countryside. This is followed by a title card with gothic lettering proclaiming, "'God hath made man upright; but they have sought out too many inventions.'- Ecclesiastes." 

We immediately know from this opening that whatever takes place will involve something deemed to be ‘unholy,’ as being against God’s intention and somehow immoral.

The story of Four Sided Triangle begins with Dr. Harvey ("Doc") narrating about the events that that occurred in the peaceful village of Hardine (Hardeen?) The shots we have of the village confirm that it is a place where nothing much happens. ‘Grant House,’ or the Manor exudes pride and tradition. The sleepy village has a local squire, Sir Walter who has a son named Robin. There's a woman whose husband is a drunk and they have a son called Bill. Doc Harvey addresses us directly and reinforces the impression that nothing interesting happens in his village, except for………….a burnt out barn.... 

By setting the story of ‘Four Sided Triangle’ in a sleepy little village, a stark contrast is provided between the timeless, traditional rural lifestyle and the modern high tech world that exists beyond the little village’s rustic confines. The intrusion of scientific advancement will soon turn the placid certainties of life upside down, leading to tragedy as indicated by the out of place burnt out barn. It may indeed presage a time when they will have “pity for the living” and “envy for the dead.”

Seeds Are Sewn

We are given a flashback to a time when. Bill and Robin are boyhood friends who compete for the affections of an eleven year old girl called Lena. She's sitting on a makeshift throne of hay bales, wearing a crown. Two boys, Sir Robin and Sir Bill, are armed with wooden swords. Lena addresses them and declares they must fight for her affections by duelling with the swords. Robin eventually beats Bill, who yields. Lena places a laurel wreath on Robin's head while Bill receives an oak leaf crown. Bill, the “defeated knight,” kisses her hand, and then runs away, obviously upset at losing out. 

This flashback is important as it shows us some of the “material that fate furnished for the four-sided triangle.” 

We gain the impression from Doc’s narration that Robin is level-headed and dependable while Bill is more spirited and impetuous. In fact, Bill is also a genius, but in a frightening sort of way. This is highlighted by his correct diagnosis and explanation of the simple fracture to his wrist, his rapid intellectual outpacing of Doc Harvey and his wild and unpredictable manner. 

Nurturing & Husbandry

 Doc eventually takes in Bill as an informal student and later he becomes his guardian when Bill's mother dies. Lena's mother takes her back to America and when the boys are older they go to Cambridge to study science. 

It is apparent that Bill seems “born to do great things,” but it has to be wondered how much direction Doc Harvey provided to Bill’s upbringing. He certainly provided Bill with encouragement in relation to his intellectual pursuits and natural curiosity. However, how often did he say “No” to Bill? Were boundaries ever set for Bill? While Bill’s intellect and material needs were being catered for, how much attention was given to his ethical and moral development? As we see throughout the movie, Doc Harvey acquiesces to just about every request that Bill makes of him. A certain amount of personal self-discipline and responsibility is essential in any well-rounded adult, no matter how much of a genius they are purported to be. 

Bearing Fruit

Lena returns one day as an adult but she has had a tough time. Her mother has died and she is very pessimistic, even to the extent of declaring that she didn't ask to be born and so she has a right to die. Lena blames herself for all that has happened. 

Robin and Bill have also returned and they have been working on an invention called the ‘Reproducer’, a machine that can exactly duplicate physical objects. After Doc and Lena go to the barn to see the two young men, Doc suggests to Lena that they need someone (her) to keep them human. 

When Robin and Doc go see Lord Grant to obtain more funding so they can keep working on their project, Lord Grant refuses their request because the work hasn’t produced any results. In keeping with his character and relationship with Bill, Doc goes to see Simpson the solicitor to sell his practice for the much needed finance. 

Back at the barn-lab, Bill and Eric have acquired some impressive pieces of equipment. 

The equipment in the barn-lab looks quite convincing, much of it consisting of what appears to be comfortably familiar army surplus pieces. There’s nothing better than oscilloscopes indicating whatever we are told they’re indicating; big gauges with jittery needles; transparent domes containing something sinister or from which something ‘not good’ will emerge; insistent flashing lights; and big tactile knobs and switches that seem to take the exertion of the whole body to activate. The world of the mad scientist and Frankenstein’s monster is never far away no matter what era we live in. 

Which leads us to the question that is inevitably asked: What exactly is the contraption that Bill and Robin have been working on? They can give it a name, ‘Reproducer.’ However, they suggest that it'd be far too technical to explain. Plank, Einstein and Faraday are mentioned as the scientific foundation on which the Reproducer device has been built.

Bill and Robin manage to duplicate Doc’s pocket watch and chain which materialises in the second display case. The second watch is an exact replica of the original watch even down to its FLAWS: one of the links being bent in exactly the same way as the original chain. 

Bill explains that they've found a way to create matter from energy, a reverse of the familiar principle of creating energy (movement, force) from matter. With their device they can reproduce anything. Lena suggests that they could reproduce precious metals and diamonds while Robin suggests that works of art could be created. 

Here we have the unfolding example of the kind of dilemma that humanity is faced with: practical applications of scientific theoretical concepts and whether they are for good or for ill. For instance, an equation leads to the splitting of the atom, which then leads to the development of atomic weapons that could result in the destruction of the world. Then again that same form of power can generate electricity and aid in medical treatments. In the film, ‘Four-Sided Triangle,’ the ‘boys’ have built their device using principles developed by the pioneers of physics. They did it because they wanted to see if they could do it and they could. Only now do they turn their minds to what their discovery could be used for. Perhaps, as in the case of many scientific breakthroughs, they needed to rethink the steps in the process. Just about anything conceived of by the mind of “Man” will amount to becoming a double-edged sword containing any number of unforeseen implications and consequences.

Later, the process is repeated in the presence of Sir Walter using a blank cheque which has been endorsed on the back. The result? Two identical cheques! Bill declared that they're not in the forgery business, but the fact that it can potentially be done raises some interesting implications. Sir Walter himself raises some potentially dangerous consequences that could result from the new invention such as atom bombs and guns possibly being reproduced. 

Yes, a universal duplicator could make readily available what was previously in short supply such as vital organs for transplant that would not be rejected by the recipient’s body. We could potentially have a world like the one envisioned in ‘Star Trek’ where all our material needs could be replicated in a world which is “a place of peace and plenty” But life is not a TV sci-fi utopia. There’s a price to be paid. Reproduce works of art for everybody? Sure! Reproduce gold and other precious metals? Sure! See how fast both of these would lose their respective values. What would happen to economies that depend on precious metals? How would you stop countries and terrorist groups from endlessly reproducing the means to destroy their perceived enemies? 

Be careful what you wish for, you may get much more than you bargained for…….. 

As Bill is to find out when he admits to Doc that he wants Lena. He's never told her how he feels and he asks Doc to probe her. There is no surprise considering Doc’s track record that he doesn’t refuse and tell Bill to just be a man and find out for himself by telling Lena how he feels.

Reap What You Sow

 Bill is becoming bored with their new invention and wants to start on something else, whereas Robin wants him to focus on what they've achieved in creating “something for all mankind” and how it could in Sir Walter’s words, “transform the world into a place of peace and plenty.” 

Later, at the dinner party, Sir Walter makes a speech in which he states that “I had faith” thereby conveying the impression that it was he who saw the potential of the invention. Next comes the issue of who controls the use and implementation of the new device. Bill and Robin are informed that the government will let them do whatever they want but that they are to place the blueprints for their invention under government control. The two inventors are to be stationed in London.

A major complication in the story occurs when Bill is confronted by the fact that Lena loves Robin and intends to marry him. His desire for what he now knows he cannot have leads him to make decisions involving his invention which will have far-reaching consequences for himself and others. 

Based on an earlier consideration of how far could they could take the Reproducer, the possibility of duplicating living things occurred to the two young men. It would be necessary to pass a great deal of current through the original living thing, thereby causing it considerable pain. Robin didn't want to proceed with it. Bill, however, came up with the idea of doping the animal first. A week previously, this was tried on a guinea pig it with positive results once the dope wore off. Unfortunately, the duplicate didn't live. 

Bill came up with his own “autojector” which would pump the blood of the duplicate animal while waiting for the heart to start. The process is soon used on a rabbit with success and it doesn’t take much of stretch of the imagination on the part of the audience or Doc to predict what Bill intends to do with his new duplication process. 

Bill knows that it is too late to late to win Lena for himself when Lena marries Robin, He therefore sets about to convince Lena to allow him to duplicate her, so that he can at least have a copy of her for himself. 

Here we see a man being driven by a force he couldn’t control. As we see Bill operating the equipment, the effect of light and shade on his face reminds us of the classic mad scientist films in which the mad scientist is impelled by his hubris and personal desires to make an unethical and immoral decision and to embark upon a course of action involving an irresponsible use of his new-found power that results in tragedy. Aren’t we all at some level subject to the force of our own wants and desires, often resulting not in the obtaining of happiness and fulfilment, but instead in personal unhappiness and misery?

Using a larger version of the autojector, the duplication process is performed on Lena. 

A very effective use of close-ups of the characters’ faces, along with musical cues during the lengthy duplication process adds to the dramatic impact of these scenes. Notice also that when a pair of spikes is pushed into the duplicate woman's neck, we are not shown the actual insertion. Instead, this part of the process is suggested or indicated by the use of a high, sustained musical cue thereby heightening the emotional impact of what we can imagine what is happening. 

The experiment is a “success.” Bill has his Lena and by a recombination of the letters of her name the duplicate Lena is named, “Helen." HOWEVER it soon transpires that Helen, is such an exact copy of Lena that she also loves Robin, not Bill! 

While on holiday with Bill, Helen appears to be increasingly distracted and silent. One morning when Bill opens the curtains in her room, as she is waking up she says by mistake, “Robin darling.” Later, while on a beach-side picnic, Helen goes for a swim and keeps on swimming further and further away from the beach until Bill swims out and saves her. It is apparent that she was trying to kill herself. 

Helen’s inner-struggles with her sense of self and Bill’s attempt to deal with this provide the viewer with finely acted drama. Helen’s torture is laid bare as she comes to the realisation that she does not have her own identity. She is in love with Robin only because her duplicate loves him. All that she is consists of what Lena was before she married Robin. 

Bill tells Doc that he only wanted two things in life, namely, knowledge and Lena. He used the knowledge he gained in order to obtain the object of his personal happiness, Lena. The result was unhappiness and misery as we now have two women who love the same man, and one of those women was ready to end her own life rather than live without Robin or live a life not of her own making. With this in mind, Lena’s words come back to haunt us, “I didn’t ask to be born; I have the right to die.”

Bill resorts to a radical experiment in order to make things right. With Lena’s help he uses a process that employs electro-shock treatment to erase Helen's memory. Just as the process appears to be working, the apparatus begins to overheat, smoke and then explodes, resulting in an intense fire. 

Meanwhile, Robin arrives with Dr. Harvey to see the whole barn in flames and manages to rescue one of the women from the fire. Bill and the other woman perish in the conflagration. 

As the woman who was rescued has no memory, there is some uncertainty as to which woman, Lena or Helen, was saved. However, Dr. Harvey recalled that Bill had to start Helen's heart with a device that he attached to the back of her neck which left two scars. It turned out that there were no marks on the neck of the woman who was rescued. Of course it was….. Lena! 

Four-Sided Triangle ends with a gothic script title card: 

"'You shall have joy or you shall have power, said God; you shall not have both' - Emerson"

How much better it would have been had the film had a more dramatic ending whereby we could have been left guessing much longer as to who the surviving woman was? Imagine the possibilities if the duplication process hadn’t left any scarring and may or may not have worked? With a fade out on an enigmatic expression on the woman’s face, could we have had the possibility of a Helen living out Lena’s life?

As to possiblities? Well, someone a few years later thought about what would happen if you combined a human being AND a fly in a duplicating machine! But that’s the subject for a future post……

©Chris Christopoulos 2013

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