The Four Just Men (1939) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

the-four-just-men-DVDEdgar 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.

JFM-03

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.

JFM-02

“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!

JFM-01

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

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

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19 Responses to The Four Just Men (1939) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

  1. Sergio – Interesting isn’t it how even when it’s got ‘period appeal,’ propaganda almost never adds to a film’s quality. That may just be my view, but I’ve had that feeling about more than one film I’ve seen. Still, this one sounds like a solid thriller. Thanks as ever for the well-written and thoughtful review.

    • I agree Margot, it’s usually somethign you have to make excuses for – it’s a bit like the ending to Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (in every way a superior film to this one) where the final scene of London being bombed was a clear message to get America into the war – it’s nicely done for all that.

  2. Kelly says:

    Fascinating. I had no idea Edgar Wallace did any directing. I’m surprised I’ve never come across that tidbit (but then again I still think of the talkies as pretty slick and modern).

    • Hiya Kelly – Wallace was at heart a salesman and a huckster so he certainly didn’t go into it for the art but he had a lease on the theatre that showed his plays so had to keep cranking them out and then made a huge deal involving the sale of practically all his books to the British Lion film company that included, as part of the package, his becoming part of the board, so he ended up directing a couple too. They made about 10 silent films from his book, released at the rate of about one a month, before the conversion to sound.

  3. Colin says:

    Cheers mate. I’d been toying with the notion of picking up the new DVD but had never seen the film before.
    Some good actors in the cast there – Sullivan, Napier, Sinclair – and Forde always knew how to shoot a tight mystery. Mind you, I have a tendency to mix him up at times with Hollywood B mystery specialist Eugene Forde.

    • Nice one Colin :) (Walter} Forde made a big impression on me when I was a kid with the likes of Bulldog Jack and especially the Inspector Honleigh films which annoyingly are only available in rather rubbish editions as far as I can tell but which i used to love – but then I love the films written by the team of Launder and Gilliat (like The Lady Vanishes). This film is a good example of the films from its era – it’s a shame that the original release version is not available but I don’t think there’s much in it beyond the re-edited finale. Incidentally, my image grabs are not from the DVD but a lesser source.

      • Colin says:

        Ah, I was wondering about that – I thought they looked a little soft.

        • Yup, they do and not anything to do with Network so would hate to give the wrong impression.

          • Colin says:

            BTW, something related to locomotives went in the mail today and should be chugging its way to you as I speak. Sorry for the delay, but you know how the trains are…

          • Ooh, thanks chum, I can hear the Goldsmith waltz in my head! Glad to say that now that I have relocated to London I only have to deal with the underground (so saving £3k in the process!) Actually, I need to ping you separately now that I more or less have my PC set up at home – still interested in that other Crichton?

  4. Patti Abbott says:

    Even these stills remind me of how effective black and white was in thrillers.

    • Thanks Patti. Gilbert Adair once wrote about how addictive the style can be and how he could think of nothing better than watching a black and white movie on a rainy Sunday afternoon. The film is good fn and can be found online too in a few places under the US title.

  5. Yvette says:

    Oooooh, another film I must see. Never heard of it, Sergio – that I can remember anyway. But I am definitely going to try and get my hands on the DVD. I love this sort of thing. Francis Sullivan also played the Nazi bad guy in PIMPERNEL SMITH with Leslie Howard.

  6. TracyK says:

    This does sound like an entertaining film. And the black and white stills are impressive. Another potential DVD to add to my growing list.

    • Thank you TracyK – It’s lots of fun and is certainly one of the better adaptations of Wallace’s work from the era (there were very many …) – a few more Wallace reviews to come soon-ish I hope …

  7. neer says:

    Is there too much of (Brit empire) chest-thumping in this? If yes, than this is definitely not for me.

    • Hello Neer – no, not too much – it just becomes in issue in the last 10 minutes, which given that this is the version re-released during the war is only to be expected. Good clean spy fun otherwise :)

  8. Pingback: 2013 Book to Movie Challenge – completed | Tipping My Fedora

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