Edgar Wallace was a popular author who, when it came to adapting his works for the cinema, not only opted to produce them himself but even directed a couple! He remains one of the most filmed of all writers, the vast majority of his voluminous output (some 170 plus novels) having been adapted for film and TV one way or another. One of the best is this 1939 version of his debut novel, released in the US as The Secret Four.
The following review is submitted for Todd Mason’s Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme at his site, Sweet Freedom, and the 2013 Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey blog – click here for links to the reviews.
“The House of Commons is no place for a traitor to air his views”
This film was directed by Walter Forde, an expert in light thrillers, and moves at a great pace though it does slow down a bit in the final 10 minutes, which is when propaganda takes over. In this version of the story (click here for my review of the original 1905 novel), brought right up to date (though the shots linking the men’s activities to Britain’s entry into the War were added for a re-release in 1944), the Four Just Men (FJM) are portrayed as errant knights, most definitely on the side of the angels. Terry (Frank Lawton) is now a Brit who, after being given only six months to live, wants to go out as a latter-day Scarlet Pimpernel. In the opening scenes he is broken out of a Nazi prison by the FJM just before he is due to be executed and then he and his fellow patriots get down to work for the good of Great Britain and her Empire.
This film does take quite considerable liberties with the book though the FJM are still after a member of Parliament – only this time their quarry is responsible for leaks of secret information and they are trying to stop him. It turns out that it’s not the MP they want (incidentally, he is played by Roland Pertwee, one of the film’s screenwriters and brother of future Doctor Who and Worzel Gummidge star, Jon Pertwee, who also appears briefly), but his high-living wife (Lydia Sherwood). The first half of the film is nearly all original material delivered at a considerable lick, enlivened too with a couple of fun set-pieces and outlandish murder methods such as when an enemy agent whose usefulness has passed gets chucked down a lift shaft (see the clip embedded below), or when one of the FJM is poisoned at a train station just by having his hand scratched by a suitcase (shades of the Bulgarian umbrella here of course) – despite this, the tone is light and breezy for this first half or so of the film.
“What are you doing in my cupboard?”
There is lots of light banter too, particularly between one of the FJM and a young woman reporter (played by Anna Lee, as ever bright and shiny as a new button), making up for the noticeable lack of any female characters in the original book (even Wallace remarked on it at the time), her profession maintaining the tabloid feel of the original. While a lot of the narrative is completely new - mainly to bring the plot up-to-date and make the protagonists more conventionally heroic - the impossible crime method is retained. About 50 minutes into the film the traitor in government is identified and the FJM now make their threat to kill him unless he stops his evil plans (which now involve blocking the Suez Canal). This is where the film starts to follow the book more closely and the scene in which they make their first death threat (by phone, updating the letter of the original), is handled very nicely with a 180 degree camera move that makes it really sinister and effective in a way that Hitchcock’s would certainly have approved of [The model for the film was probably Hitchcock's version of The 39 Steps, which is evoked when the villains meet the MP's home, which happens to be number 39 ... ]. Actually, I’m not sure but I think the shot was achieved not by tracking the camera round but in fact by moving the set round and keeping the camera stationary due to the difficulty of moving the bulky camera in a set meant to replicate a telephone box – either way, it certainly grabs your eye!
Of the four actors playing the FJM the best known today in Francis L. Sullivan, a corpulent character actor who was still active in the 50s (he co-starred in Plunder in the Sun, which I previously reviewed here), who gets to play Poccaire (well, actually it’s Poiccard in the film and he has also been given a new first name, Leon, borrowed from Gonsalez who is otherwise absent from this rendition) as a voluble Frenchman who masquerades as a high street seller of chi-chi frocks and gets most of the amusing dialogue. Hugh Sinclair as Mansfield (re-christened Humphrey in this version) is the more conventional leading man but a bit of a bore however. The new villain of the piece is Snell, played with relish by Basil Sydney, who it turns out is in league with an MP played by Alan Napier (who is clearly and naughtily doing an impersonation of Neville Chamberlain), who insists on always having his bath at 6.30 at a temperature of exactly 102 degrees, which ultimately proves to be his undoing in a neat variant of the impossible crime from the original book. A highly entertaining movie and the new DVD edition is certainly well-worth getting.
DVD Availability: Just released by Network on a very decent looking DVD, this is the 1944 re-release version as this is apparently the only remaining.
Director: Walter Forde
Producer: Michael Balcon
Screenplay: Roland Pertwee, Angus MacPhail, Sergei Nolbandov
Cinematography: Ronald Neame
Art Direction: Wilfred Shingleton
Music: Ernest Irving
Cast: Frank Lawton, Anna Lee, Francis L. Sullivan, Hugh Sinclair, Alan Napier, Lydia Sherwood, Griffith Jones, Basil Sydney