VisArt Diaries: ‘The Fourth Man’ Breaks Down Homophobic Tropes
For this installment of VisArt Diaries, I want to highlight some of the VHS that Visart has to offer. For those born in the new millennium, VHS stands for Video Home System, and refers to tapes that go into a videocassette recorder, or VCR. Now that that’s out of the way, I’ll have you know that VisArt still has an extensive VHS catalog spanning any genre imaginable.
Once again, I leaned on the expertise of Micah, the always helpful employee. After close to 20 minutes of perusing I decided on two different films, Brewster McCloud and Wild Style. The first is a Robert Altman film starring Bud Cort (Harold and Maude) and Sally Kellerman (M.A.S.H.) about a boy that builds a wing machine and uses it to fly away from his home. Wild Style is a film about the intersectionality of breakdancing, turntabalism and hip-hop.
I made my way to the front of the store and Micah said, “Have you seen The Fourth Man by Paul Vorhoeven?” I told him I hadn’t, but that I’m a huge fan of Robocop, Starship Troopers and Total Recall, the latter being one of my all-time favorites. As it turns out, The Fourth Man was Vorhoeven’s last Dutch film before heading to Hollywood. No offense to the aforementioned films, but I can’t pass up the chance to watch a Vorhoeven movie, so I picked up that instead. And oh boy, thank god for Micah.
So let’s get to the plot, shall we?
Loosely and quickly, the film is about a bisexual writer who begins seeing a woman he meets at his book reading. He learns that she is wealthy, due in part to the deaths of three previous husbands. He suspects that he or her other boyfriend will become her next victim. Considering it was released in 1983, The Fourth Man is very open about sexuality, in stark comparison with American movies of the same era.
While we would hint at queer relationships in the 1980s and even to present day, the main characters openly discuss it. Our protagonist, the writer, played by Dutch actor Jereon Krabbe (Living Daylights, Prince of Tides), initiates a tryst with his girlfriend’s other boyfriend Herman, who reciprocates. The idea of an open male relationship that doesn’t paint either of the involved parties as villains was nowhere close to common in American film at that time.
The film is based on the novel De Vierde Man by writer Gerard Reve, which is also the main character’s name in the novel and the film. Interestingly, we are supposed to accept him as a character the writer created, not as the writer himself. In many of Reve’s other books, homosexuality is very openly discussed. The film scraps a relationship between Reve and another male character, Laurens. The film simply combines the character of Laurens into Herman to speed the film along narratively.
In contrast, let’s look at Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film Rope. In that film, the implied gay lovers, played by Farley Granger and John Dall, kill a former classmate and hide him in a chest during a dinner party. I’ll accept that 1948 was pretty early to even imply a same-sex relationship in film, but yet one more example of homosexuality relating to deviance. You can find many examples in film, but don’t just take my word for it, it’s a well-documented issue.
Often times the general narrative concept around homosexuality is that of “The Other,” which could simply mean “barbarian” in ancient literature or the cultural tendency to evaluate and assign meaning to other ethnicities, cultures or identities, which are then negatively measured against the ideal standard of the Self. Simply put, if you exist outside of what is the perceived norm then you must be bad or the enemy.
Going back to The Fourth Man, it’s interesting to see these concepts experimented with and inverted. From the surface, the movie feels like it could go in the direction of Hitchcock, or even DePalma. But it doesn’t settle into these routines; it instead goes for the themes that the aforementioned directors would often paint with too wide of a brush. Furthermore, the concept of hyperrealism and images of Christianity create a surreal experience throughout. You’re left with an unreliable narrator/protagonist which leaves you wondering if anything that happens in the film is just how Gerard Reve imagines it, or all in his imagination.
If you’ve read this far and are currently scratching your head or I’ve lost you, I implore you to watch this movie, preferably by getting the same VHS copy at your favorite local video store, Visart. And if you’re not familiar with Vorhoeven, I highly recommend easing in with Total Recall or Robocop, then Basic Instinct and, lastly for the real fans, Starship Troopers. Paul Vorhoeven is an underrated treasure who honestly doesn’t get the respect he deserves.
Currently I’m on tour with my band Late Bloomer and visiting video stores along the way. Stay tuned for the next installment, for which I’ve been visiting video stores across the South.
This work by Queen City Nerve is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.