For many people the story of Hammer Films begins with The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957 and The Horror of Dracula in 1958. This is an entirely incorrect view. Hammer made their first horror movie in 1935 (Phantom Ship, also known as The Mystery of the Marie Celeste). It’s not even true that The Curse of Frankenstein marks a major departure for the studio. They’d already been making some very dark film noirs, quite a bit of science fiction and several movies with definite tinges of gothic horror (such as Terence Fisher’s 1952 film noir Stolen Face). And in 1953 they’d made what can be considered a dry run for their Frankenstein films, with Four Sided Triangle.
In Four Sided Triangle most of the elements of the classic Hammer Frankenstein film were already in place.
In a quiet English village three youngsters grow up under the watchful eye of the jovial local general practitioner, Doc Harvey. The two boys Robin and Bill, and the girl, Lena, are inseparable. But already a romantic triangle is forming. Even in play the two boys compete for Lena’s favour. So far the triangle has only three sides.
The boys turn out to be scientifically gifted. Bill in particular blooms under the tutelage of Dr Harvey. They go off to Cambridge, then return to continue their experiments. Lena has gone to America, but she returns as well, and is soon installed as a kind of live-in housekeeper/assistant to the two budding young scientific geniuses. But there’s still the problem of two young men, and only one young woman. That triangle has re-emerged.
Robin and Bill have made the greatest scientific breakthrough of the age. They have devised a means of duplicating any object. Any non-living object. Bill however believes that living creatures can be duplicated as well. Meanwhile Robin and Lena have announced their impending marriage, Bill, who is of course hopelessly in love with Lena, is devastated. But perhaps there is a solution. What if there were two Lenas? One for Robin, and one for Bill?
This is a Hammer film directed by Terence Fisher, so you know that Bill’s idea is going to go horribly wrong.
Terence Fisher can’t really be regarded as a horror auteur but he was an extraordinarily skilled craftsman. His camera set-ups are rarely fancy, but somehow they’re always just right. If you ask yourself if a particular scene could possibly have been filmed more effectively in some other way, the answer is almost invariably no. Fisher has come up with the simplest and best way to film the shot. With Fisher the visuals always serve the plot, and if you don’t notice the hand of the director then he’s done his job properly.
Fisher is not often thought of as an actor’s director, but he was one in the sense that his unobtrusive competence always allowed room for the actors. Again, his considerable visual skills were there to enhance the performances, not to swamp them. And he did get very fine performances from people as disparate as Lizabeth Scott and Peter Cushing. In Four Sided Triangle Stephen Murray plays Hammer’s first full-on mad scientist, and as was so often the case in the later Frankenstein movies he’s not really a bad person at all. He’s merely been tempted, and has succumbed to the temptation.
Barbara Payton is effective in her dual role as Lena and as Lena’s artificial twin. She’s not a femme fatale, she just can’t help the fact that no matter how many times she might be duplicated she’s still going to love Robin rather than Bill.
James Hayter was Dr Harvey was often annoying in roles such as this but the movie cleverly implicates him in Bill’s mad schemes, so he can’t be the moralising outsider passing judgment on others. It’s an example of just how sophisticated this early Hammer movie is.
This is also the earliest glimpse of a Hammer mad scientist’s laboratory, and it’s a pretty good early effort.
Hammer never really changed their basic approach. They always believed that the recipe for success was to make B-movies, but to make good well-crafted B-movies that managed to look more expensive than they were. This 1953 production is a fine example, and it’s highly entertaining as well. Recommended.