Four Sided Triangle (1953) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

And now for a slight change of pace here at Fedora, featuring real-life femme fatale Barbara Payton. She plays the object of everybody’s affection in this off-kilter melodrama that was one of the first of Hammer Studios‘ excursions into the weird and the bizarre that would soon dominate their output. It is also a precursor to the Frankenstein films that director Terence Fisher would make his name with at the studio just a few years later. We begin when the three protagonists were children in a small English village …

This review is offered for Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason Sweet Freedom

“An empty mind … and a new beginning!”

Shot at Bray Studios over five weeks in August and September 1952, the premise is one that will be familiar to fans of The Fly (based on George Langelaan’s 1957 short story) though the story by William F(rederick) Temple preceded it by quite some distance. In fact it originally appeared as a short story (‘The 4-sided Triangle’) in Amazing Stories in November 1939 before being expanded into the novel some 10 years later. Two scientists, Robin (Will in the short story) and Bill, develop a ‘reproducer’ that can copy any type of matter perfectly. Having worked on inorganic materials, Bill starts to focus on living creatures. The apex of the eponymous triangle is Joan (Lena in the film), a childhood friend of both boys who has been helping them with their experiments. Bill is secretly in love with her, but she and Robin only have eyes for each other and get married. It is then that Bill hatches the plane to duplicate Lena. He does this, calls her Dolly (like the cloned sheep 40 years later …), and marries her. But she’s not happy …

“I didn’t ask to be born. So I have the right to die”

Amazing-Stories-November1939The central idea is a clear variation on Frankenstein and as presented here is, on the face of it, incredibly obnoxious. Defeated in love, Bill just decides to make a carbon copy and just assumes that she will fall for him. Of course, because she is an exact copy, the opposite happens and the duplicate, named Helen in the film, is also in love with Robin. Ultimately there is a fatal accident and there is some doubt about which ‘version’ of the woman survives. This sense of ambiguity does in fact serve the story well since its existential concern, despite the daft premise, is quite nicely developed. In the film Lena comes back to her two friends having resigned herself to being a failure, assuming that she is not much longer for this world. Instead she finds a new purpose with their research and love with Robin (John Van Eyssen). Our sympathies are with Bill, played with great delicacy by Stephen Murray (who frankly is a bit too good for a film like this), but the plight of Helen is handled with some subtlety.

Credit is due to director and co-writer Terence Fisher for fashioning something that is much more interesting than one might have thought – certainly compared with Fisher’s earlier excursion into this territory, Stolen Face (which I previously reviewed here) this is a much more rounded and confident bit of filmmaking, very well-paced and its low-budget really not too obvious (there was even some location shooting in Weymouth). On the other hand the constant references to the bible courtesy of narrator James Hayter, clearly included to appease the censor and drum home the ‘man is not god’ homily, are so on the nose as to be pretty laughable. This is a fairly naive film in many ways, from its science to its sexual politics but that is also part of its charm, especially given the film has a sort of fairy tale feel. In addition the scientific sequences are well staged and dramatic, the acting is generally understated and the philosophical implications of cloning ever more timely, making this a little film that is well worth looking at.


DVD Availability: This title is now available as an extra on the new Blu-ray edition of Curse of Frankenstein, though it appears there in standard definition unlike the main feature. It was previously released in the UK by DD Home Entertainment, which after going into administration is now known as Simply Media. Copies are still available from them and provide the film in a decent print with a handsome booklet written by Hammer experts Jonathan Rigby and Marcus Hearn. The US edition from Image, without the notes, also still seems to be available.

My dedicated microsite on Hammer Studios and its thriller films is here. Hammer have officially made the film available online on YouTube right here:

Four Sided Triangle (1953)
Director: Terence Fisher
Producer: Michael Carreras, Alexander Paal
Screenplay: Paul Tabori and Terence Fisher (from the novel by William F. Temple)
Cinematography: Reginald Wyer
Art Direction: J. Elder Wills
Music: Malcolm Arnold
Cast:  Barbara Payton, James Hayter, Stephen Murray, John Van Eyssen

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in Hammer Studios, Science Fiction, Terence Fisher, Tuesday's Overlooked Film and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

35 Responses to Four Sided Triangle (1953) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – I’ve always found those offbeat films to have very interesting takes on those bigger questions. That question of ‘Just because we may be able to, does that mean we should?’ is perennially interesting too. This is one I’ll confess I’ve not seen, but I like the willingness to take some risks with the theme.

  2. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have read the short story and also seen the film. Both are interesting and enjoyable. Science fiction with a clever idea.
    However, I preferred the superb ending of the short story.

    • Thanks Santosh, glad you liekd it too – well, the more ambiguous the better as far as I concerned when it comes to the outcome but that was not where the filmmakers were going.

  3. Colin says:

    I haven’t watched this in ages – I have the old DD disc – though I remember it as being passable entertainment. It’s kind of transitional Hammer, lying somewhere between the thrillers and the SF/horror. The moralizing is laid on a bit thick and the whole thing is just inherently silly – all perfectly watchable though.

    • Well, yeah, you are absolutely right Colin, very succinctly put, if I may say! I enjoyed it a lot, mostly because it exceeded my expectations, and I do like how it slots in so well with the way Hammer’s films would eventually develop.

      • Colin says:

        Yeah, well I do like transitional movies whatever the genre. They’re not always entirely successful (and can sometimes be downright bad, in fact) but tracing the evolution of various strands of cinema does draw me in.

        • Which should nto blind one to their inherent faults! But I relly ou what though, Payton is really quite appealing and sweet and Murray is just sensational – and hey, it’s even opfficially online for once!

          • Colin says:

            Actually, I think the faults can be most fascinating parts – spotting the aspects that didn’t work, yet.

            Payton was generally appealing I think. I don’t know if you’ve seen Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye with Cagney, but she’s pretty good in that too.

          • I did see it but it was about 30 years ago so I just can’t remember (for some reason I thougt Virginia Mayo was in that) – I’ll be doing a review of her other Hammer, BAD BLONDE (aka The Flanagan Boy) fairly soon – I was hoping to source a copy of the original novel by Max Catto at a sensible price, but have failed so far …

          • Colin says:

            Easy to mix up with White Heat in all fairness. If you’d like a copy any time, just let me know.

            Bad Blonde is a good little B flick IMO. Never read the book myself.

          • Thansk chum. Catto was a pretty popular novelist in his day but it looks like this one was not one of his big sellers!

  4. Patti Abbott says:

    Payton was an interesting actor. I am not sure that I have ever seen this.

    • It’s a shame that the sordid aspects of her life have so overwhelmed our perception of her – but she’s good here and at least the film is available (officially) online – it’s no great shakes perhaps, but an interesting genre product all the same.

  5. Yvette says:

    Ooooh, thanks for the link, Sergio. This sounds like a fun film to wile away an hour or so on an autumn evening. 🙂 Just as soon as the baseball post season is over of course. Barbara Payton – jeez, what a hellish life. But poor love-lorn Franchot Tone, bruised, beaten and abandoned.

    P.S. Not much of an intriguing title for a movie, I must say. I immediately thought it was a story about mathematicians. Ha.

  6. Now this is obscure Sergio! It does sound as though it has its moments, but maybe for completists only. I had never heard of film or story (which doesn’t, of course, guarantee that it’s obscure, but is a pointer….) I did look up Payton’s story – how sad.

  7. Skywatcher says:

    I saw it a long time ago. It’s not a great film, and it tends to be viewed simply as ‘precursor to Hammer’s later, better films’, but it actually works as an interesting minor effort. One of the problems that I have with it is the narrator. If you are a British viewer of a certain age, then the voice of James Hayter is the voice of MR KIPLING’S CAKES. Hayter did the voice-over for the adverts for many years, with the result that whenever he starts to moralise and quote the Bible, I start thinking that he is going to tell us about ‘Mr Kipling’s Bakewell Tart’ or whatever…

  8. Richard says:

    My high school geometry teacher told us a triangle has THREE sides.

  9. Nicely reviewed, Sergio. I don’t know much about the film or its cast but I’ll be seeking out “The 4-sided Triangle” story in “Amazing Stories” before I go hunting for William F. Temple’s novel.

  10. tracybham says:

    I don’t know if I will ever run into this but it might be fun. Sounds like my husband’s kind of movie… maybe.

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