Movie Discussion: Paul Verhoeven’s The Fourth Man [Die vierde man] (1983)

  • Monthly Theme: Perverted KillersRA01_30051001532800_U
  • The Film: The Fourth Man
  • Country of origin: The Netherlands
  • Dutch title: De vierde man
  • Date of Netherlands release: March 24, 1983
  • Date of U.S. release: June 27, 1984
  • Studio: Rob Houwer Productions, et al.
  • Distributer: International Spectrafilm
  • Domestic Gross: ?
  • Budget: ?
  • Director: Paul Verhoeven
  • Producer: Rob Houwer
  • Screenwriter: Gerard Soeteman
  • Adaptation? Yes. Based on Gerard Reve’s 1981 novel De vierde man.
  • Cinematographer: Jan de Bont
  • Make-Up/FX: Christopher Tucker
  • Music: Loek Dikker
  • Part of a series? No.
  • Remakes? Sort of. This film served as the inspiration for the 1992 Hollywood thriller Basic Instinct (also directed by Verhoeven).
  • Genre Icons in the cast? No.
  • Other notables?: Character actorJeroen Krabbé. Dutch film star Renée Soutendijk.
  • Awards?: Special Jury Award at the 1984 Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival. Best Foreign Film Award at the 1984 L.A. Film Critics Association Awards.
  • Tagline: “Christine is young, beautiful and rich. Her three husbands all died tragically. It’s time for Christine to find her fourth man.”
  • The Lowdown: Gerard (Krabbé) is an alcoholic writer who has been invited to give a literary lecture by a small town arts council. Upon arrival he is bewitched by the council’s seductive treasurer, Christine (Soutendijk). Gerard begins a romance with her, but finds that he’s plagued with dark, unsettling visions that suggest his own emasculation and/or death. By Christine’s hands? Things only become more complicated when Gerard becomes obsessed with one of Christine’s other lovers, Herman (Thom Hoffman), and vows to seduce him…

If you haven’t seen The Fourth Man, our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.

Sean: My opening question is simply this: Is Gerard the most disgusting and hateful male protagonist of any film we’ve watched? I feel like he’s at least a contender. His physicality is revolting – that tongue, that leering gaze – but also there are moments like when he is waiting in bed to be serviced by Christine that just make my skin crawl, but also fill me with rage.

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Just a little trim

Kristine: Gerard is such a fuckboy. Remember when we discussed Dressed to Kill and I made a grand declaration that Brian De Palma was not a misogynist and that, in fact, he was a radical lady supporter? And you basically deflated my argument with irritating facts and such? Well, I am going to do it again. I believe that Verhoeven’s film is feminist. Or, at the very least, is disgusted with male-ness. As with De Palma, I mostly base this opinion on how absolutely vile and ridiculous the men are. Gerard is a vain, greedy, spoiled baby driven by base desires.

Sean: Gerard licking Herman’s face? Kissing Herman’s swimsuit pic?

Kristine: “What a piece,” he says (or so the subtitles say) when he sees Herman’s cheesecake pinup shot. What about fucking stalking him through at the train station? What a lunatic. Though I did like Gerard getting freaky with the Jesus statue at the Catholic Church, fantasizing/hallucinating that Jesus is Herman, while the old lady watches in old-lady disgust.

Sean: I’m not sure if I agree with the adjective “feminist” in relation to this film. In reference to that crucifixion moment, I’d call this film “sacrilegious” or “irreverent” or “genderfuck.” But maybe not “feminist.”

Kristine: Ok, let me walk that back. I will concur the film is not feminist per se, but I do think that it is significant that Gerard, the leading man, is such a nasty scuzzy piece of work, and yet he vilifies Christine. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen many of Verhoeven’s films, so I can’t speak across the board, but Michael Douglas’ pathetic, washed up, easily manipulated cop in Basic Instinct and Kyle MacLachlan’s ridiculous slimeball in Showgirls are two more examples of pitiful males who are totally outmatched by tough broads. So, maybe not feminist, but… something.

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Gerard marks his prey by leaving a trail of thick tongue coating on their skin

Sean: Ultimately, I feel like this movie is mostly a mindfuck about religion/Catholicism and its relationship to the erotic. Is that too highfalutin’?

Kristine: No, not at all. I agree with that. But I was struck also by how the movie equate religious faith with the DTs and the manic paranoia of detox-ing addicts. Specifically, all the visions/hallucinations brought up by acute alcoholism/alcohol withdrawal. I think the whole “explanation” for the movie’s plot comes back to Gerard’s alcoholism. By the way, for such a grimy storyline, a lot of Gerard’s hallucinations are incredibly lovely.

Sean: I was surprised, upon rewatch, by how Lynchian this is. It really felt like Dressed to Kill meets Mulholland Drive.

Kristine: Yes, I love that.

Sean: But I am feeling dumb right now, because I didn’t even think Gerard being alcoholic was a significant part of the movie. He is an alcoholic?

Kristine: Ummm…

Sean: I don’t even remember him drinking, and I took copious notes.

Kristine: I would say it is his defining characteristic, other than being perverse.

Sean: When does the movie establish that he’s a drunk?

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Chrissy, Janet, Jack

Kristine: Scene 1 – Gerard is lying in bed and can’t get up without knocking a million things over. He tries to shave, but his hand is shaking too much from the DTs. He goes to get his first drink of the day to stop the shaking and he toasts to a picture of the Virgin Mary on the wall before downing it. Then he quarrels with his violin-boy, who calls him a drunken souse. He tries to play off that he doesn’t drink much at the lecture, but Christine is wise to him and keeps bringing him enormous drinks, every one of which he downs. Etc., etc. throughout the film… But then at the end, after his breakdown, the doctor explains to the nurse/Mary that the cause of his psychosis is his alcoholism, and that he needs to dry out.

Sean: Hmmm, I literally ignored all of these details. I am a dumdum. This brings up the other thing I felt the movie was “about” – the artistic personalityand the hysteria/paranoia/perverse-ness of the artistic temperament.

Kristine: Á la Hour of the Wolf.

Sean: Yeah. But also, remember how annoying it was when Marcus in Deep Red kept being like, “As an artist…”

Kristine: Oh, Christ.

Sean: The Fourth Man felt like a presentation of “the artistic mind” in the character of Gerard. And of course, a critique and lampoon of that.

Kristine: I would say that its mostly a lampoon. I think this movie is, more than anything, a dark comedy. Gerard gives himself total absolution, he thinks he has the right to be a complete child, have others take care of him, and act as badly as he wants. Christine is the only adult in the love triangle. I just want to quickly say that equating devout religious faith with the hallucinations of a severely diseased alcoholic mind is so fucking cynical. Not that I necessarily disagree. But still, damn.

Sean: Right. Because according to this movie, religion is just a fever dream/hallucination right?

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The Holy Mooseknuckle

Kristine: Right.

Sean: Just a language made of dream logic and erotic capital.

Kristine: Yes. Remember that when Gerard describes his artistic process he says,“I lie the truth, until I no longer know what did or didn’t happen. Then it gets exciting. What you make of reality is far more interesting than reality itself.” And not to belabor the point, but other symptoms of DT are paranoia, acute nightmares that are mistaken for reality, and the inability to make logical conclusions. So.

Sean: Did the DT/alcoholism thing move you?

Kristine: Like, was I sympathetic? No.

Sean: More like, was the characterization of Gerard full of pathos?

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That baby has scabies

Kristine: No, this was no Leaving Las Vegas. Gerard, and this movie overall, are both just so excessive, there is no room for pathos. That being said, I was revolted by Gerard but I was impressed by Jeroen Krabbé’s performance.

Sean: Gerard’s DT stuff could be seen as the movie’s way of pointing out that he’s a fool, because he’s always insisting that to be an artist means to ignore/discard reality in favor of fantasies… But his fantasies are just the byproducts of neurosis and illness, not artistic genius.

Kristine: Yes, excellent point. I really think Verhoeven lives to humiliate Gerard (and the other aforementioned obscene men that populate his movies).

Sean: What were your favorite directorial moments? Mine was the sequence where Gerard imagines that he enters the sinister Hotel Bellevue through the advertisement in the train car, where the door to Room 4 is adorned with a staring human eyeball that slithers sickeningly out of the socket and falls to the floor.

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I like your knob

Kristine: I also loved that, and even going on three years of watching horror movies with you didn’t make it less gory and stomach churning. I also liked how that moment foreshadows Herman’s death by rebar through the eyesocket. Eye rape is the worst. Re: Zombi 2’s eye splinter, Hostel’s eye dripping down face, A Serbian Film’s death by penis-in-eyesocket.

Sean: The movie’s presentation of the Hotel Bellevue as mundane place that is inherently terrifying (it’s the Gothic, uncanny place) really reminded me of David Lynch, especially moments from Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive where he’s able to create an atmosphere of suffocating hysteria around a banal location (Laura’s bedroom, the dumpster in the alley, the apartment where Betty and Rita find the swollen corpse, etc.)

Kristine: Agreed. Related to Gerard’s hallucinations/fantasies, I loved the moment when Gerard sees an image of the Madonna and child in Mary crowning her cherubic son with the apple peel [because ‘Jezus is Overal’], and also the blood flowers blowing around Gerard when he flees the church (and is attacked by the [sensible] dog/hell hound). On the trashy side, I loved when Gerard cackles in gleeful celebration when he thinks he has conned Christine into summoning Herman to meet him. He is such a creep.

Sean: Oh yeah. That whole dream where ‘Mary’ is in the orchard holding a gigantic bouquet of flowers, and then from the flowers comes a phallic object. Is it a gun? No, a it’s key. The intensely Freudian symbolism (flowers = female sexuality, gun/key = penis) is hilarious. And that the dream culminates in this over-the-top, gory castration/penectomy was glorious. It was like Liz’s sex-change operation monologue from the end of Dressed to Kill come to life.

Kristine: Yeah and again, A Serbian Film. We’ve got a minor motif here of castration anxiety.

Sean: Is Herman a fox?

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Friday the 13th Part 20: Jason Takes Holland

Kristine: Sure, I guess. He has a “derrrrr” face but is still sexy in that young, dumb, and full of cum way. My fave Herman line was, “This boy stays with Chrissy!” I was dying giggling and imagining you giggling.

Sean: What about Christine being like, ‘My line of cosmetics is called…. Delilah!’

Kristine: Loved it. And cutting off Gerard’s hair. I mean, it’s all ridiculously over-the-top with zero subtlety, but it’s fun, right?

Sean: Yes, super fun. The penectomy dream. The scissors as a visual motif for castrating women. The diva ridiculousness of the malfunctioning neon sign that goes from “Spider” to “Sphinx.”

Kristine: I loved that Spider to Sphinx moment, and loved Christine “cocooning” Gerard in her web by mothering him – literally clothing him, feeding him, indulging him. Though Gerard’s real penile issue is that he can’t stay hard, right? Due to his drinking? Remember when they first do it and he’s all, ‘Oh, sorry, it fell out.’ Classy, Gerard. What do you make of the fact that both of Christine’s male lovers are terrible in the sack?

Sean: See, I thought the ‘it fell out’ bit was to suggest that Gerard isn’t that into women, that he’s only attracted to Christine because of her androgyny. When he does become virile and orgasmic, its when she’s curled against him, the gender of her body obscured, and he’s fixating on her back in the mirror – which looks like a beautiful boy’s back (later he tells Herman, “From the back you look just like Christine”).

Kristine: Hmm, interesting. Yeah, all of that playacting that she was male, as opposed to being attracted to an androgynous woman, right? Like literally covering up and denying her breasts. You might be right, but I thought it was significant that for as horny and sexually driven as Gerard is, he doesn’t ever carry out the sex act with either Christine or Herman. I chalked that up to his alcoholism. For Gerard, it’s not actually about the act of sex, it’s about the compulsion, the perving out, the eroticizing, right?

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Flat blonde and bored

Sean: Right. I mean who can forget that stomach-churning masturbation scene where he’s peeping on Herman and Christine? I felt like the ultimate joke of the movie is that all of Gerard’s terror of Christine’s “predatory” femaleness is a hysterical overreaction to (a) his basic homosexual inclinations and (b) his Catholicism, which feeds him the Madonna/Whore imagery that fuels his paranoid fantasies. I also felt like Verhoeven was suggesting that Catholicism has intrinsic misogynistic/homosexual components to it. Am I crazy?

Kristine: Definitely yes to your last two points. Can you explain (a) more? I feel like Gerard is pretty okay with being a ‘mo.

Sean: I felt like homosexual desire was pretty much synonymous with vagiphobia/misogyny in the movie. I’m just thinking of that (amazing) Gothic seduction scene in the crypt, when Gerard is getting a blowie from Herm the Sperm and he sees the (phallic) urns containing the remains of Christine’s three dead husbands. I’ve been reading some queer takes on horror films recently that talk about how the binary of hetero/homosexuality has always been thought of in natural/unnatural terms, and how horror movies create archetypal specters of queerness – the lesbian vampires of Hammer films and Jean Rollin/Jesus Franco movies, for instance – because it feels ‘right’ to equate homosexuality with death (because of its non-procreative status) [see Sue-Ellen Case’s essay “Tracking the Vampire” for more on this]. A movie like Bruce LaBruce’s Otto; or Up With Dead People openly embraces/subverts that mindset by offering up horny, buttfucking and – most importantly – vital gay zombies. Anyway, all this was playing out in my head during The Fourth Man’s crypt sequence, which was such a melodramatic setpiece. Of course the big gay moment takes place in a crypt, with these inert receptacles of discarded masculinity looking on. What’s repressed in that scene is the (homophobic, binary, Catholic) terror that these erotic acts contain no true virility/life. They are empty (dead) erotic moments, observed only by the phallic urns (more death). Mary and her baby represent ‘good’ because they represent Life and reproduction and fertility (which is, from a Catholic viewpoint, holy). Note how Mary is always associated with nature/fertility imagery – gigantic bouquets in full bloom, orchards of flowering trees, cascading petals. Christine, with her androgynous appearance, her sterility (the antiseptic beauty salon, the fact that she’s married three times and never produced a child), is constructed as somehow inhuman and arachnoid, her sexuality threatens death/danger/emasculation.

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God’s menses

Kristine: Those cutaways (during the crypt scene) to the gory deaths of Christine’s three previous husbands were hilarious and amazing, especially the death-by-lion [giant PUSSYcat]. I think that was hubby was named ‘Ge.’ Sorry to be a culturally insensitive clod, but Ge is a ridiculous name.

Sean: Ge is ridiculous. But its also a truncated [castrated] version of Gerard’s own name, right? Foreshadowing that Christine will emasculate/devour him. The only “good” kind of femininity that Gerard can conceive of is maternal. Remember all that tripe about “The moon is our mother. She protects us, watches over us…”? Remember how when Christine presents her breasts to him, he suckles at one of them (recalling the image of Mary’s baby pressed against her breasts on the train)? Best detail from that scene: The infant is wearing a ‘Daddy’s Boy’ onesie.

Kristine: Ha, I saw that. I want to make a public service announcement to not just the gays, but all folks: If you spot a stranger you find sexually attractive in a public place, and there are clear signs he/she is not of your sexual orientation (i.e. perusing straight porn when you are a homo or vice versa) and/or not interested in you (avoiding eye contact and conversation), but you still literally chase them down and then go to great and devious lengths to conspire to meet them and then lead them into a creepy abandoned setting and immediately swab the side of their head with your thick, obscene tongue…. The outcome may not always be them being glad that “you like them” and dropping to their knees to blow you. Contrary to how things play out in this movie.

Sean: Right. Gerard is the most predatory character in the movie. He is projecting all the black widow shit onto Christine, but it is him.

Kristine: Well, exactly.

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Rhymes with “kinks” and “jinx” and “twinks”

Sean: One thing I’d completely forgotten about this movie is that Christine has literally no role in Herman’s death.

Kristine: None whatsoever. Gerard is the one who is scheming over Christine’s money. I think it is significant that Christine is utterly uninterested in her wealth, right? She clearly doesn’t need to work, but still does (as a beautician, a lower-class pink collar occupation, serving others). She is generous and free with money. She changes her own sheets. So that blows the usual motivation of the ‘black widow.’ Christine is no gold digger.

Sean: Exactly, though it is implied that she only possesses this wealth because she was a gold digger. The suggestion being she is so perverse and so oversexed, that even after she’s achieved the aim of any gold digger (the wealth and the dead husband) that she still is compelled to prey upon men, only now its starving artists and young hunks. The movie still casts Christine as the femme fatale in all these ways. She is first seen in red, with a movie camera, photographing Gerard, which links her with a long line of sadists/killers who use the camera as a way to capture/frame the image of their victims (Mark from Peeping Tom, Richard from Creepshow, Bosco in Thesis, Vukmir in A Serbian Film, etc.). And then the movie ends with her sidling up to another “piece” and its all ominous. Is the movie trying to have it both ways?

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Phallic woman

Kristine: Actually, the piece sidles up to her. She is sitting there in shock/grief and this new dude (the Fifth Man?) basically insists on taking her home. It seemed to me that all her dudes (excepting Gerard, who, in my opinion, was never in the running to be Mr. Christine) are mucho macho types, with manly interests (that end up playing into their deaths). We don’t know for sure if she is masterminding these seductions or not, but the men surely think they are running the show. I think the temperament of these men, the type of man that is attracted to Christine, is what leads them to their death.

Sean: One thing I wanted to bring up was the psychic powers stuff. How the Madonna figure (‘Mary’) is in the beauty shop and says “Magic, hypnosis, it all exists, including telepathy. All of it!” and then she tells a story about a jet pilot who as a terrifying dream, so he calls in sick, and the plane he was supposed to fly crashes (the dream that had scared him was a castration dream). Gerard scoffs at the idea of telepathy, but then pretends he’s telepathic to convince Christine to conspire with him to lure Herman to the house. And it’s like, Is Christine playing along? Or does she believe him?

Kristine: She so does not believe him.

Sean: But I would argue that she’s rendered unknowable by the movie. What is motivating her? If she doesn’t believe him?

Kristine: I don’t know. She is attracted to the dark side, for sure, even if she isn’t causing/encouraging/staging these deaths. Remember when, foreshadowing Herman’s fate, she dangerously zips around in her car, almost crashing in the shipyard (or whatever it is) and gets called a “miserable bitch” by the dock guy? And she just laughs maniacally, and for way too long? Plus all her black humor in the home movies/snuff tapes?

Sean: Right. She’s a thrill junkie.

Kristine: But I believe she actually might be really looking for love.

Sean: Hmmm. I would simply counter that knowing anything about her is nearly impossible. The movie makes sure of that. Where does this movie fit in with the month’s theme/other films?

Kristine: The inability to see clearly, or to trust what one sees, and the focus on “seeing” – Christine’s filming, Gerard’s peeping, Herman’s eyeball impaling. Men casting women in roles (specifically Madonna or whore) that may have little to do with reality. Men’s general distrust of uncanny or unconventional women – like Olga vs. her father in Deep Red, conventional husband vs. repressed, unhinged actress wife in Deep Red, policeman vs. valiant hooker with a heart of gold in Dressed to Kill, Dolarhyde’s assumptions about Reba in Manhunter, etc.

Sean: Last thing I’d like to add: I am going to punctuate my next orgasm by screaming “Through Mary to Jesus!!”

Kristine: That is seriously such a good idea. Please do that.

Ratings Roundup

The Girl’s Rating: More feminist than you’d think AND Neo-Hitchcockian gorgeousness AND Sleazesterpiece!

The Freak’s Rating: Bloody wonderful genderfuck AND Neo-Hitchcockian gorgeousness AND Sleazesterpiece!

6 thoughts on “Movie Discussion: Paul Verhoeven’s The Fourth Man [Die vierde man] (1983)

  1. I saw this in saw a horrible, cropped and mistranslated VHS edition so long ago that I cannot possibly comment: It was virtually incomprehensible.
    I do remember some of the imagery, but it’s not enough to present a valid appreciation.

    I’ve seen quite a few films that way too (way too many HK films,) I am sad to say. I’m certainly glad for the DVD revolution.

  2. Great write-up as always. I went through a period of being obsessed with Paul Verhoeven and watched everything (even his 1960s tv series Floris), and this was a definite highlight.

    Verhoeven has claimed that The Fourth Man was made as a joke on Dutch film critics. He said that scriptwriter Gerard Soeteman and himself were fed up with getting bad reviews when movies he considered pretentious were getting good reviews, so they stuffed The Fourth Man with as much on-the-nose symbolism as they could possibly fit into it. The movie went on to get rave reviews in the Netherlands, which he considered as making their joke a success.

    I totally agree about Verhoeven’s movies mostly presenting men as pathetic or disgusting. The main exceptions are probably his American SF/comedy movies (Robocop and SS Troopers – in Total Recall he even makes Arnold Schwarzenegger pathetic). I don’t think he’s a feminist, especially given the many leering scenes of sexual assault scenes he’s directed, but he does feature more powerful women in his movies than most mainstream directors. His bugfuck combination of left-wing politics, leering perversity and extreme graphic violence was hugely appealing to me in my teens and early 20s.

    1. So, Pearce, is Spetters worth a watch? I know that’s where Soutendijk debuted and I’m curious, but I’ve never mustered up the courage to watch…. I’ve also heard that Black Book is great but I haven’t gotten to it yet….

  3. I wonder what the novel is like. Again, it’s very interesting to read you, but as often, I find you too moralistic and too adamant about the moral content of the films that you choose to comment upon.