Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Four Sided Triangle

What wouldn't you do to have your very own Barbara Payton? I suppose that that's the premise to the oddball Four Sided Triangle, an early Terence Fisher picture.

The plot in one sentence: Bill is so heartbroken that his childhood friend Lena is marrying his childhood friend Robin that he uses all of the powers of his mad scientific genius to produce an exact living replica of Lena for his own purposes of lunatic love.

If the plot sounds loony, that's because it is thoroughly so. Bill, Robin, and Lena are best friends from a young age. Lena goes off and does her pouty woman thing as a young adult while Bill and Robin go off to college and become scientific masterminds. After college, they move back in with Bill's (adopted) father, Doctor Harvey, and they create a marvelous Cornucopia Machine (though they are content to refer to it as a "reproducer") which can make a perfect copy of anything in the world (excluding, momentarily, living creatures). The science is wonky here, but when has that ever mattered?

The idea is a fascinating one and has been explored interestingly in other SF works, but is left unexplored here. The machine (and all of its socio-political and ethical implications) is a mere plot device, existing so that Bill (and the watching world) can experience a second Lena.

Which brings us to the next plot point. Throughout these early scenes of the boys working together on the machine, it is appropriate (if not a bit too obvious) that every time that Lena appears in a shot, she appears either with the Doctor (Bill's surrogate father) or IN BETWEEN the two male friends. Soon enough, Bill's love for Lena is revealed to the audience right before Robin and Lena's engagement is announced. The triangle has been broken and so has Bill's heart.

It's not long before Bill tweaks the machine to be able to make copies of living matter. Lena is home on vacation without Robin (conveniently - Robin is in the city, introducing the machine to government officials) and Bill explains the situation to her. Instead of being horribly freaked out by all of this, Lena, ever submissive, submits to Bill's mad desire and allows herself to be duplicated. If she can't leave Robin to please Bill, she's at least willing for her clone to do so.

What follows shouldn't be much of a surprise to any intelligent viewer. The copy of Lena is too perfect. Not only are all of her physical features exact, but her memories as well have been preserved intact. It's obvious, then, that Lena II (called Helen) is no happier with Bill than Lena I was. The rest of the film plays out well for what it is, but only if one is able to accept the idea that all of these intelligent people could have overlooked this potential serious complication in the "duplication" process.

Anyhow, Helen pretends for a while. Bill is happy for a while.

Then, things get bad. The ending is bittersweet and involves its own mild surprises, all of which I'll leave to the viewer adventurous enough to give Four Sided Triangle a try.

The film is fairly well-crafted for an early 50s "sci-fi" flick. Besides the wonky science and lack of following through on ideas, the film's major weakness is probably its narrative structure. The Doctor character breaks the "fourth wall" early on and establishes himself as the narrator. This allows for some convenient exposition and an ability to artificially move the plot along. It all works, but it also points toward the laziness of Fisher's writing here.

The lab scenes, however, that show the workings of the machine are very effective, suspenseful and mysterious, despite, or maybe because of,their naivety and their speculative charm. My favorite frame of the film appears at the top of this post. All of Bill's sad longing is evident here as he watches the creation of his intended bride, the duplicate Lena. The acting is wooden at times, but always believable as far as I'm concerned (except maybe the character of Robin, who I can't imagine was meant to be such a bore) and this scene is key. Lena isn't much of a woman. She's simple and kind, faithful in a way, but really just a not-so-bright pretty face. Perhaps the primary question raised by the film is what did Bill love her for. Was it her character? Was it her beauty? I think it may have been, simply, her familiarity.

Four Sided Triangle
raises questions and dilemmas that it isn't up to the task of answering, but it has an undeniable charm.

I'd love to see a sequel, set 30 years in the future, in which the British government uses the "reproducer" to create an army of Margaret Thatchers intent on world domination.