The title refers to Krabbé's position as the fourth man whom Soutendijk seduces, after she presumably has dispatched her first three husbands. The film is sexually explicit and, like many of Verhoeven's other films, shows graphic violence and gore.
Gerard Reve (Jeroen Krabbé), an alcoholic, bisexual novelist, leaves Amsterdam to deliver a lecture at the Vlissingen Literary Society. There, he becomes sexually involved with its attractive treasurer, Christine Halslag (Renée Soutendijk), who is alternately described as a witch, black widow, Delilah and the Devil. The Virgin Mary appears to him in visions to show that he is targeted as her fourth victim. Mary says, "Anyone given a warning must listen to it." Gerard listens and his life is spared. He passes on the warning to Herman (Thom Hoffman), Christine's other lover, who ignores it, thinking that Gerard is trying to scare him off so that he can have Christine for himself. The movie ends with Herman's death, Christine's selection of a fifth victim and Gerard's future uncertain.
Paul Verhoeven has said of the film: "The Fourth Man has to do with my vision of religion. In my opinion, Christianity is nothing more than one of many interpretations of reality, neither more nor less. Ideally, it would be nice to believe that there is a God somewhere out there, but it looks to me as if the whole Christian religion is a major symptom of schizophrenia in half the world's population: civilizations scrambling to rationalize their chaotic existence. Subsequently, Christianity has a tendency to look like magic or the occult. And I liked that ambiguity, because I wanted my audience to take something home with them. I wanted them to wonder about what religion really is. Remember, that Christianity is a religion grounded in one of the most violent acts of murder, the crucifixion. Otherwise, religion wouldn't have had any kind of impact. With regard to the irony of the violence, much of that probably comes from my childhood experiences during and immediately following the Second World War. In fact, if it hadn't been for the German occupation and then the American occupation, I would have never been a filmmaker."
He told The Seattle Times, "You never know if you're dealing with a super-reality or not." Reve endures many experiences which may be hallucinations, such as a famous scene in which he believes a woman is pointing a gun at him, then turns to show it is merely a key to a door, and another in which, on a train, he studies a picture on the wall so intently that he is apparently drawn into it.
Mike Pinsky of the website DVD Verdict points out repeated uses of the color red, blood, the Virgin Mary, and the Cross, including:A spider climbs over a crucified figure of Jesus in pursuit of a struggling fly
Gerard Reve tips his glass to a statue of the Virgin Mary, as he takes the first drink of the day
A woman peels an apple, then shapes the peel into a halo over her boy's head
Gerard Reve drinks a Bloody Mary
Red flower petals blow in the breeze
A sign reads "Donate Your Blood to the Red Cross"
The film was a decent box office hit in the Netherlands, gaining 274,699 admissions, a modest figure compared to the millions of visitors his previous films had. The film was more successful in the United States, where it received widespread critical acclaim. It currently holds a 100% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes and is his highest rated film.
It ranked #93 in Empire magazines "The 100 Best Films of World Cinema" in 2010.
The Seattle Times, in a rave review, wrote that the film is "confident and skillfully made" and "erotically charged (and graphic)," adding,
Verhoeven has created an intricate, witty thriller about a writer's fears and paranoid imaginings and their possible fulfillment ... The director carefully steers a middle course that leaves you wondering at times if the woman is a witch, and at other times if the writer is just a victim of a morbid Catholic upbringing and a runaway imagination. Usually movies that take this approach (like Jack Clayton's delicately balanced masterpiece of ambiguity, The Innocents) are too frustrating to American audience expectations to become commercially successful. Yet The Fourth Man appears to have broken through that barrier to become one of the few profitable foreign films of the past year. Verhoeven makes the writer's suspicions so entertaining that his dreams and fantasies, which might just be premonitions, have a visual and psychological force that is actually stronger than the 'reality' of the other characters. Coincidence and random happenings reinforce the man's paranoia, and his visions of castration, spiders that kill their mates and living crucifixes eventually seem to have some basis ... Eventually, the imagery of the film accumulates and leads directly to an explosive but still inconclusive finale. Thanks to Verhoeven's favorite cinematographer, Jan de Bont, the dark, smooth look of The Fourth Man is as crucial to its success as the performances of Krabbé (excellent in an essentially unsympathetic role), Soutendijk (wittily enigmatic and predatory) and Hoffman (... an unexpected force of personality). The music by Loek Dikker swiftly sets up the ominous-funny tone of Krabbé's hallucinations, and the sharp editing by Ine Schenkkan creates a tension within them that keeps you guessing. It may be low-budget by American standards, but The Fourth Man is one of the most professional-looking movies to play here this year.
The Philadelphia Inquirer called the film "highly charged" and enthused, "The Fourth Man falls into the general terrain occupied by the film noir, but it resists any label and – in its more lurid scenes – defies description. It is graphic in both violence and sex and most decidedly not for the squeamish ... Verhoeven's surface theme is the consequence of obsessive sexual desire, but the main undercurrent has to do with the vague line that separates fantasy from reality ... nothing is what it seems ... Verhoeven has designed the film in a way that keeps the viewer as off balance as the protagonist ... If there is such a thing as macabre wit, it can be found in the way Verhoeven treats his characters."
In contrast, the Philadelphia Daily News wrote that the movie "is never as kinky or as funny as the character of Reve is. Its purple plot is beautifully lurid but the film itself is one step away from being brazenly lurid. It holds back."
Pinsky, of DVD Verdict, thought the film to be "artsy to a ridiculous extreme. Saturated with images borrowed from symbolist and surrealist art, the film hammers the viewer over the head in every scene." However, he adds, "It is all much too much. And indeed it is supposed to be. Just as it is unclear in Total Recall [a 1990 film by Verhoeven] whether we are meant to be watching a straight-faced action film, or a deliberately excessive send-up of action film clichés, The Fourth Man can be seen on both levels. It works better as a comedy however." Pinsky concludes, "it is a psychosexual thriller that often undermines its own narrative authority. Verhoeven gives us plenty of hints that we should not take things too seriously, particularly through Gerard's erratic behavior: his childish lust for Herman, his desperately facile attempt to fake psychic powers in order to trick Christine, and his increasingly baroque hallucinations. Everything in Gerard's world becomes steeped in irony." After writing this, Pinsky adds, "Verhoeven is quite clear up front that the movie is meant to be a joke and that Christine's guilt is deliberately ambiguous ... If you do not take it seriously, you will likely get a kick out of this film."
The Fourth Man earned the 1983 International Critics' Award at the Toronto International Film Festival and was nominated for the 1983 Gold Hugo for Best Feature Award at the Chicago International Film Festival. Verhoeven opened the Seattle International Film Festival with his film, which garnered the 1984 Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Foreign Language Film as well as the best New York reviews of any Verhoeven movie. The film was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film of 1984 by the U.S. National Board of Review of Motion Pictures. Also in 1984, the Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival gave Verhoeven its Special Jury Award.Loosely remade as Verhoeven's fourth Hollywood movie, Basic Instinct, of which Verhoeven considers The 4th Man to be a spiritual prequel.