The Four Just Men (1939)
Directed by: Walter Forde
Written by: Angus MacPhail, Edgar Wallace, Roland Pertwee, Sergei Nolbandov
Starring: Francis L. Sullivan, Frank Lawton, Griffith Jones, Hugh Sinclair
HCF REWIND NO.131. THE FOUR JUST MEN [UK 1939]
AVAILABLE ON DVD: Now
RUNNING TIME: 84 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Reporter James Terry, playwright James Brodie, fashion shop owner Leon Poiccard and actor Humphrey Mansfield are The Four Just Men, English patriots who have taken it upon themselves to usurp tyranny and expose anti-British political intrigue and spies, yet their chosen methods are murder, blackmail and sabotage: essentially operating as terrorists or vigilantes in countries around the world. Terry is rescued by his comrades from a Prussian prison where he is moments away from being executed as a spy. Terry escapes with the information that a highly placed fifth columnist inside the British government is laying the groundwork for some kind of attack against the United Kingdom…..
Despite the fact that 160 films have been made from his stories, most notably the 32 comprising the subgenre of krimi thriller movies from Germany which some claim mutated into the giallo, the writer Edgar Wallace doesn’t seem too well known these days, and if he is, it’s as the author of the first script for the 1933 version of King Kong, a film which, despite my love for Godzilla which I hope is showing in my series of reviews for this website, I unreservedly claim is the greatest giant monster movie ever made. In his heyday though, he was very popular indeed. At one point during the 1920’s, one of Wallace’s publishers claimed that a quarter of all books read in England were written by him, perhaps true considering the number of things he wrote, not just novels but plays, short stories and works of non-fiction, and considering also how popular crime literature always seems to be.
Well call me ashamed to have never seen a Wallace-based movie except for the one with that giant ape, not even The Dark Eyes Of London starring Bela Lugosi. I hope that The Four Just Men won’t be the last. It was made at a time when many Wallace-derived material was finding its way onto British screens. Wallace’s 1905 novel had already been made into a silent film in 1921 and would later be made into a TV series in 1959. I’m surprised the story hasn’t been adapted since, because it has a really cool premise which I think would appeal to a modern audience. Four men, their identities secret, battle the forces of evil, and, like Batman but maybe going even further, are not above breaking the law to do it. Threats, sabotage, blackmail and even possibly murder [okay, we don’t see them commit one, but one really gets the impression that it’s certainly something they have carried out in the past]: none of this is below these guys. Considering how strict the censors, especially those in England, were at the time the film was released, I found the moral ambiguity most intriguing.
So what we have here is a real ripping yarn of four heroes fighting dastardly villains who are out to destroy nothing less than the British Empire. It was made in the days when films like this didn’t need to have an explosion or a car chase every fifteen minutes, so The Four Just Men can’t really be called an action movie, yet it’s a really fast paced affair, each scene cut to the bone with great economy and crisply following on from each other. It’s essentially an espionage story, pitched somewhere between Ian Fleming and John Le Carre. You’ll need to concentrate somewhat during the first half, but matters really end up being quite simple and the whole thing remains quite light in tone, despite the increasing stakes and the odd jolting murder, including a rather sudden push down a lift shaft that actually took me by surprise, and death by poisoned suitcase [!],which is one of several times when the film has a Hitchcockian sense of everyday menace. Overall the direction by Walter Forde is workmanlike – this was one of five films he made in 1939, but in the script you can certainly the great touch of sometime Hitchcock collaborator and contributor to several truly great British films like Dead Of Night.
The Four Just Men gets off to a cracking start with one of the Four about to be executed in what I assume is intended to be Prussia [but is clearly standing in for a certain other country]. He is whisked away for questioning, only the folk doing the whisking are actually the other Three. The former prisoner comes away with some Important Information, and it all develops from there with spying, smuggling and murder, leading to a climax where Mansfield, the actor of the group, has to use his skills to impersonate someone very ‘high up’ indeed. Along the way, an intrepid girl reporter joins in the fun and edges closer and closer to not just the truth behind all this skulduggery that’s going on, but who the Four Just Men are. She actually spends much of the time locked in a cupboard, but there’s certainly no outdated sexism here. Some of her scenes with Brodie resemble those in seen in the screwball comedies of the time, though sadly Anna Leigh and Griffith Jones don’t have much chemistry. While it tells its story well, the script sadly keeps one of the Men off-screen for much of the time, and when events really heat up, it all happens off-screen, but that may have been because of the budget.
This film has a pair of great villains, one of them who had seemingly been based by Wallace on the ruthless and duplicitous foreign minister Joseph Chamberlain who was around when he wrote the book, but in the scenes where the dastardly Hamar Ryman preaches about peace, if you know what was going on when this film was made, and remember your history, he may remind you greatly of a certain Neville Chamberlain and his policy of appeasement in the face of Nazi Germany getting stronger and stronger. The Four Just Men is quite clearly a criticism of him and a wake-up call for Britain, while, despite the unnamed country threatening nothing less than the destruction of the British Commonwealth Of Nations being somewhere in the Middle East, the Men are quite clearly battling the Nazis. While it’s an enjoyable picture anyway, this really is one of those films where it helps to know what was happening at the time, and may go some way to explaining why it seems to suddenly stop. Incidentally, it was re-released in 1944, with an addition of newsreel footage from the Second World War and a narrator explaining how things had changed.
The cast are decent, if not outstanding, except for maybe Hugh Sinclair, who has plenty of opportunity to demonstrate his versatility in playing a guy who slips in and out roles, and Anna Lee is really bright and rather lovable as someone who is almost a forerunner to the heroine of His Girl Friday. As usual for British films of the time, and unlike many comparable Hollywood ones, there is little music score, but it works when it is used. In the end, I don’t want to make claims for The Four Just Men as some kind of neglected classic, but it’s a lot of fun and proves that you don’t need a barrage of action to tell an exciting story. It looks really good for its age on Network’s DVD, and I enjoyed it a lot. Now, putting to one side the nationalistic elements, and remembering that Wallace wrote quite a few Four Just Men books, where’s the updated remake?….though perhaps I should be careful what I wish for.