Dolf de Vries
1 Hr., 42 Mins.
The Fourth Man
hen it comes to the Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven's most zeitgeisty movies, it's usually the over-the-top images I'm likeliest to remember the most years later. Coming to mind is the exhibition of a blocky cyborg wielding a gun in 1987’s RoboCop; the three-breasted woman who makes a brief appearance in 1990’s Total Recall; the all-white ensembled Sharon Stone momentarily, and revealingly, uncrossing
The Fourth Man (1983), Verhoeven’s second project of the 1980s, and usually the one credited for helping him infiltrate the American film industry, is, like his later, more famous movies, an enclave of visual and sensorial decadence. Provocative religious symbolism is bursting; sex and sexual fluidity are rendered aesthetic facets. The cinematography is silken but severe; the score, orchestral and vaguely Hitchcockian, menaces. The film’s love for immoderation can perhaps be summed up by its inaugural image and its relationship to a later one: As the opening credits roll, we watch as a spider, slow and bulbous, traps and eats its prey. Moments later, after the narrative begins, a sultry woman takes a forlorn man to her place of work: a complex called “Spin,” which is the Dutch word for spider.
That man is Gerard (Jeroen Krabbé), a dipsomaniacal, scumbaggish, bisexual novelist with stiffly greasy hair. The woman is Christine (Renée Soutendijk), a brisk, carefully kempt blonde who looks like she bathes in Chanel No. 5. Their meeting seems fortuitous on the face of it. But later, once we get to know Christine a little better, it seems as if that initial encounter had been methodically mapped, months ahead of time.
Shortly after The Fourth Man opens, Gerard travels from his native Amsterdam to give a talk in Vlissingen, at the headquarters of the city’s literary society. The train ride over is marked by strange portents. A picture of the hotel at which he will be staying induces a chimeric vision; he bumps into people carrying a coffin with a banner on it that seems to bear his forename. (Though it turns out that the paper was simply crinkled, and coincidentally spelled out “Gerard.")
Christine is an immediate fixture upon Gerard’s arrival: She is the treasurer of the literary organization. At first, though, she remains mostly in the background. Clad in crimson satin, she slinks from corner to corner, wielding a bulky camera, saying little. It is indicated that she is taking photographs in the name of publicity, but her sneaky gait suggests ulterior motives.
Before he so much as speaks to her for the first time, Gerard is intrigued. Once he wraps his lecture, he and Christine get to talking, then spend the night together. Post-romp, though, another minacious image pops into Gerard’s subconscious. He has a nightmare that Christine, who has hidden a pair of scissors under the sheets, unhesitantly cuts off his penis. Gerard stays with her long after waking, but paranoia can’t be held off for very long — especially after he learns that Christine has been married three times, and that each marriage ended with an inexplicable, tragic death, from a boating accident to a mauling.
The Fourth Man, which would be Verhoeven’s last Dutch film until 2006’s Black Book, seems a precursor to the divisive Basic Instinct. In the latter film, a detective (Michael Douglas) gets involved with a woman (Stone) who may or may not be a serial killer. That film, too, includes much nudity and explicit violence, and that film, too, features elements of homoeroticism and an is-she-deadly-or-isn’t-she-type storyline.
But whereas Basic Instinct was borderline offensive — much of the homoeroticism was queer-baity, and the nakedness often felt rather exploitative — The Fourth Man doesn’t straddle the line separating art from trash quite so coarsely. The main character is bisexual, and proudly so. (The Stone character’s same-sex attractions, in contrast, were arguably there purely to cater to the straight male gaze.) The actors seem to relish in the material; Stone, along with a supporting player portrayed by Jeanne Tripplehorn, was in comparison regularly either equivocally ogled by Verhoeven’s lens or made quasi-rape-fantasy centerpieces for the Douglas character in the 1992 film.
The Fourth Man thrillingly sizes down the genre from which it parrots much of its style: film noir. Its formula — everyman gets unwisely involved with an arachnidan woman — has been seen in genre pieces aplenty, from 1944’s Double Indemnity to 1946’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, from 1947’s Out of the Past to 1981’s Body Heat.
Verhoeven augments the trivia of these films. Gerard doesn’t get immersed in Christine’s dangerous world solely because he’s attracted to her: we learn that, as the film opened, he had caught a glimpse of one of her strapping lovers (Thom Hoffman), and was overarchingly looking to sleep with him. (An ambition that’s seen through — sort of.) Christine doesn't seem to be trying to lure Gerard into a trap, or a plot in which he will kill, or commit a crime, for her; ideas of imperilment, which are certainly understandable, are exaggerated in his head. The misogynist notions that deadly, sexually confident women deserve to be punished are thus tossed. The visual style has an almost-homogenous gloss, but the gleam — which often entails cross-like refraction — contributes to ideas of this all being a nightmare or a falsely heavenly vision rather than a work of nü-film noir. This all makes for a cinematic bacchanal of glamorous danger and sexual superfluity. Like so many other strands of Verhoeven’s feral filmography, it’s hard to get enough. A