There are some films that resonate so deeply, that touch such a core part of who the viewer is, they become ingrained and embedded like celluloid DNA.
Paul Verhoeven’s The Fourth Man is one such movie for me. With its heady blend of religious mania, unrepentant sexuality, thoughts about writing, and substance abuse issues-it hit me with the force that only an epiphany can achieve. A friend of mine played the movie for me one summer afternoon in 1983, and it instantly became one of my favorite movies-always in the top 5 of any favorites list I’ve made. 30 years later, it’s lost none of its impact on me. In fact it may have an even deeper connection now, since I’m older, more self aware, and more mature (hopefully).
The opening credits show a fly trapped in a spider’s web on a crucifix, as the web maker closes in on its prey. This really sets the movie up for what follows in a symbolic-though heavy handed way. The soundtrack by Loek Dikker, especially the piece accompanying the credits, is menacing, theatrical, and one of my favorite scores. It enhances the movie, rather than manipulates what you should feel.
As the camera pans down from the crucifix we see all manner of religious relics and then the sleeping form of Gerard Reve, the bisexual, alcoholic writer. He’s awakened by the strains of his lover practicing the violin. Unkempt and with shaking hands, he stumbles down the stairs, attempts to shave, but decides to have a drink instead. After his partner calls him an old drunk, he fantasizes about strangling him with a black lace bra. The film then cuts to Gerard, dressed, and off to the train station.
Once there he encounters Herman, a young, handsome man (played wonderfully by Thom Hoffman), checking out a skin mag. Smitten by him, Gerard follows him around like the predator he is, only to see Herman get on a train. He follows after the train but fails to catch it. This early scene shows how easily obsessed Gerard can be, and that he’s as much a victimizer (mostly of himself), as he is a victim. Jeroen Krabbe is nothing short of brilliant, and this is easily one of my favorite performances of an actor in any movie. He manages to make Gerard, creepy, vulnerable, conniving, sympathetic, and insane all at the same time. It’s truly a sight to behold.
Once on his own train, a young mother and her child sit next to him. The mother reappears throughout the film in various ways, mostly as a Madonna figure, and yet another obsession for the protagonist. As you can see from the screenshots, the religious imagery is everywhere he looks; it infects and at times, molds what he sees as opposed to what reality might be. As an example, he notices a picture of a hotel (Hotel Bellevue to be exact). Imagines himself walking into the picture, getting a key to room 4, only to have an eye drop from the peephole. Back on the train, it’s merely a broken carton of tomato juice from the woman’s bag that’s dripped down on the picture.
Gerard disembarks, and asks a gentleman in a dark suit if he’s there to pick him up. The man smiles and tells him, no, and then motions for the casket he is there to pick up. An excitable Gerard notices the name on the casket is his, but the undertaker shows it to be partially obscured and not his name at all. Only then is the real driver for Gerard able to catch up to him.
As Gerard enters the lecture hall where he’s due to speak, he notices a beautiful woman filming him, but takes to the podium before meeting her. He recounts the run in with coffin at the train station, though embellishes it, as the tall man from a circus in the coffin surrounded by 30 dwarves. He then utters a line that I have never forgotten, and rings so true to me as a writer, I have it on a sticky note taped to my laptop.
“I lie the truth, until I no longer know whether something did, or did not happen.” Not only is this true of his writing, it’s also true of almost everything else in his life. During intermission he’s introduced to the mysterious photographer, who also happens to be the treasurer of the group sponsoring the talk. She informs Gerard, after some flirty talk, he’s been booked into a hotel-yes-the very same one from the train. When he demurs, Christine offers to let him stay the night with her.
On a rather reckless (or wreck filled), drive to her home, they witness the remnants of a car accident, replete with bloody body on the street. This is yet another foreshadowing of things to come. They arrive at Christine’s lair-a hair salon/house named Sphinx (though some letters are dark and all you see is spin-like a spider). After some brief flirting, and a moonlight kiss, they have drinks. Christine, knowing a drunk when she sees one fills his glass with whiskey, even though he asks for a drop, and tries not to gulp it down all at once. The seduction continues and once in bed, Gerard remarks how she looks like a beautiful young boy. Odd pillow talk to say the least. After a premature conclusion, Gerard dreams of the Maddonaesque (religious Madonna, not shows her twat Madonna) woman from the train walking down a dirt path lined with trees. She’s holding a bouquet of roses, and at first glance what appears to be a gun. As her hand turns we see it’s an oversized key, which she uses to open a door(with a stained glass cross on it). The door opens to a room with three slaughtered cows, blood dripping into milk cans. She places the flowers in the fourth, empty can.
We cut to him laying in bed, Christine moving her hand down his body, then taking her scissors and cutting his junk off. Waking with a start, Christine asks what the dream was about, and Gerard lies once more and says “I can’t remember.” While the viewer is left wondering about the symbolism (much like Gerard), its meaning will become clear, as will the role of his version of the Virgin Mary. Christine comforts him, and he curls up next to her, a sexual version of Raphael’s Madonna with Child.
He awakes the next morning to the sound of his host on the phone, when he peeks down the staircase, he sees her coming up and quickly rushes back to bed, feigning sleep. From here on, the game of chess between the two really comes into play. Gerard scarfs down some biscuits when Christine’s back is turned, though she watches his piggishness in the reflection of a mirror. As she looks at his shirt, and frayed collar, she offers him some shirts from, as we find out, her husband who has died in an “accident”. Gerard offers some words of support, but as a wet eyed Christine goes downstairs to her salon, Gerard quickly jumps up in bed, and looks at the new shirts, his compassion, nothing but a word.
Once dressed in a dead man’s clothes he bounds downstairs, spies a glass of alcohol, gulps it down, and gets called on it playfully, who tells him there’s coffee. They talk about their future-or lack of one-and Gerard then gets a tour of her Salon, replete with references to the myth of Samson and Delilah, as well as flashbacks to his nightmare. With his hair cut, and a conversation with a customer out of the way, Christine finally sets about giving the writer his speaking fee. She intentionally leaves out a letter and photo of her boyfriend as she gathers the money. The lockbox is stuffed with money, and Christine gives a knowing smile upon seeing Gerard’s hungry expression for the dough. Called away, Gerard is left alone with all the money, and reaches out with a shaky hand but leaps out of his seat away from it, only to discover the letter and photo. To his delight, he sees her boyfriend Herman, is the same man he chased through the train station.
In one of the creepier moments, Gerard then caresses his face with the young man’s image and kisses the speedo’s Herman is wearing before putting it back down quickly as he hears Christine return. He scrambles away and attempts to be casual (an echo of his returning to bed pretending to sleep), looks out the window and sees the woman from the train taking her baby from her husband.
When she returns, Gerard is paid double his asking price, and given a little guilt trip to stay. Of course, since he saw Herman’s photo, dynamite couldn’t dislodge him from the home, so it’s a win/win double cross of sorts for both of them.
I want to stop here a moment and talk about these two characters. On the surface, both are charming, attractive, and seem to be likeable. However, as the movie progresses, and especially after Herman enters the scene, their true natures come to the front, and these somewhat tragic anti heroes become rather obnoxious. Gerard more so, as he was never quite appealing from the beginning, yet he charms the audience as much as he charms Christine and later Herman. It’s an odd bit of characterization, and a testament to Verhoeven’s talent that we continue to follow them at all after this point.
You can see in the above screen caps the wheels turning in their heads, each with their own agendas. Gerard’s to seduce Herman, and Christine’s to…that always remains a mystery, though depending on what you believe the ending to mean, hers could be to kill Gerard. In the following scene on a drive into town (and a close call with a construction site, that foreshadows a later murder. Christine takes him shopping for writing supplies, paper, ink, pen nibs. Shopping done they head to the beach and Gerard scares her in the water, which infuriates Christine because her husband drowned, however, her anger is short lived, and they enjoy a romantic dinner, where Gerard reads her palm. He tells her of a young man, “very beautiful” whose name begins with a H. When Christine confirms this, he says he can tell more with something of substance. Like, maybe, a letter and photo perhaps? She dashes off to get it, and Gerard (in my favorite bit is unable to control his excitement and jumps around in his chair like a child at Christmas.
His manipulation, and lies are a wonder to behold here, but as we’ve seen previously, it’s also Christine who is the master manipulator. As he describes the picture, he gets an unexpected vision of Herman, draped in a bloody sheet walking out of the ocean, one eye dripping from a bloody socket (again foreshadowed earlier by his trip to the hotel in the picture on the train). Not to be sidetracked, they take a walk on the beach, where Christine tells of how she met Herman, and about her dead husband. When she tells Gerard that Herman is a two pump wonder, he convinces her to bring him down, so he can employ his “psychic powers” to see why he orgasms so quickly. To celebrate, they start to make love on the beach, when a broken bottle cuts Gerard’s hand. When asked if she felt that, Christine replies, “No, I have a numb spot on my back.”
The next morning, Christine is off to pick up Herman, and they get their stories straight about how Christine will explain Gerard’s presence. She gives him the house keys (the same shaped key seen earlier), and makes a point to lock a cabinet with the same designed cross as Gerard saw in his vision. Alone in the house, he starts to write his new novel, but a stray gust of wind, blows his paper away. To collect his thoughts, and perhaps gain inspiration, he goes for a walk along the pier where a dead seagull falls from the sky and nearly hits him. A bit farther along he witnesses a corpse being fished out of the ocean. No doubt thinking the seaside jaunt was probably not a good idea, he stops in a local church. While praying to the Virgin Mary, he turns and sees Herman replacing Christ on the crucifix. He goes to the fixture and starts running his hands up the man’s legs, and pulling down the speedos for some more caressing of his “savior”. A woman with a candle passes by as he’s in his own illusion, and the figure of Herman is replaced with the wooden Christ (who no doubt would be less than amused to be groped on a cross).
On his way home, a high wind picks up and he’s surrounded by a whirlwind of rose petals, from the bushes of a nursery when a German Shepherd leaps out at him and chases him away. Once home, Gerard indulges in what he seems to do best: drink. He notices the key from his vision on the keychain entrusted to him by Christine and proceeds to open the locked cabinet to find three reels of films marked Henk, Johan, and Ge. He finds a projector and starts to play the movies and begins with Johan, who was also a hairdresser. Bottle in hand he half heartedly watches as a very young and bouiffanted Christine gives her husband a trim. The home movie cuts to their wedding day, and finally to Johan jumping out of a plane.
The next is Ge, a military man, seen riding atop a tank, and then cuts to their wedding day. An increasingly drunk Gerard is not amused by this and hurls invective at the couple on the wall. This clip ends at a wild safari zoo with Ge feeding meat to the lions.
Now totally wasted, Gerard puts on the final film, Henk. It starts with Christine catching a fish with a net, and presenting it to the camera before putting it back in its tank. The next scene is, you guessed it, another wedding day. This ends with Christine sending her third husband off fishing in a speedboat. By this point, Gerard is literally falling down drunk, and passes out, only to awaken when Christine and Herman arrive home. After an inauspicious meeting with Herman, Christine rushes him to bed, and Gerard peeks at them making love through the keyhole.
At breakfast the next morning, the three have an amiable chat, with Christine leaving the two men to fend for themselves until the afternoon. Before taking a ride, they have a conversation, that is so well written, well acted and steeped in sexual tension, that describing it doesn’t do it justice. It’s potent, amusing, and about as perfect a dialog scene as you can get. It’s obvious they’re both getting worked up like alley cats in heat. Herman, it turns out, is an even faster and utterly more reckless driver than Christine, and despite Gerard wanting to walk in the dunes, Herman prefers driving around.
As they speed around a corner, they nearly run over Gerard’s woman from his visions, who are carrying a bouquet of roses. He yells for Herman to stop the car, and he chases after her only to lose her in a graveyard. With Herman right behind, a rainstorm opens up on them, and they take shelter in a crypt. Once out of the rain, Gerard seduces Herman the only way he can think of, by grabbing him from behind and licking the side of his face. This apparently is enough to work, as some spit is swapped, and Herman gives Gerard an enthusiastic hummer. Gerard, sadly, has little time to enjoy it, as he notices that the crypt they’re in is for Christine’s husbands. All three, dead, under mysterious circumstances. He sees their deaths, or what he thinks are their deaths, and assumes all are caused by Christine. He tries to convince Herman of this who thinks he’s crazy, and Gerard runs off. Herman catches up to him with the car, and they speed through town through the same construction site where Christine narrowly missed having an accident earlier.
Things don’t go as well this time and a lowered supply of pipes crashes through the windshield and impales Herman through the eye. The same missing eye from Gerard’s vision with his palm reading. Taken to the hospital, the doctor on call also happens to be the same man who picks Gerard up for the speaking engagement. Upon learning of Herman’s death, Gerard proclaims him the fourth man and suffers a complete breakdown. When Christine arrives, he tries to attack her, and is sedated, then taken to a private room, where his nurse is the woman from the train/visions. Upon the wall is a cross that burns bright with light, and then fades into the credits with the same spider crawling across the crucifix.
Was Christine responsible for the deaths of her husbands? Or was Gerard simply suffering from alcohol induced hallucinations and paranoia. The movie doesn’t tell us, and lets us decide for ourselves. In the end, in Verhoeven’s world, it doesn’t matter, religion is just as deadly as a killer.