Four Just Men, The (1939)

vt The Secret Four; vt The Secret Column

UK / 82 minutes / bw / CAPAD, ABFD Dir: Walter Summers Pr: Michael Balcon Scr: Angus MacPhail, Sergei Nolbandov, Roland Pertwee Story: The Four Just Men (1905) by Edgar Wallace Cine: Ronald Neame Cast: Hugh Sinclair, Griffith Jones, Francis L. Sullivan, Frank Lawton, Anna Lee, Alan Napier, Basil Sydney, Lydia Sherwood, Edward Chapman, Athole Stewart, George Merritt, Arthur Hambling, Garry Marsh, Ellaline Terriss, Percy Walsh, Roland Pertwee, Eliot Makeham, Frederick Piper, Jon Pertwee, Liam Gaffney.

Wallace’s novel was a massive bestseller in its native land, and the assumption of this movie was that viewers were at least vaguely familiar with the book’s premise: that a group of four men, working to secure justice where the cops could not, operated covertly—often taking the power of life and death into their own hands—to defend justice and the British way of life. In the novel they were essentially conspiratorial vigilantes; in the movie, made as Europe trembled on the verge of World War Two, the emphasis is more political.

In 1938 one of the Four Just Men, James Terry (Lawton), awaits execution this very morning in the German prison of Regensberg. Even as he’s being prepared for the ax, an imperious officer arrives with instructions that Terry is to be taken away for further interrogation. Sure enough, as the staff car speeds away, it’s revealed—to the surprise of no one in the audience—that the officer and his driver are two of the other Just Men, respectively distinguished stage actor Humphrey Mansfield (Sinclair) and theatrical impresario James “Jim” D. Brodie (Jones). Back in London, the three reunite with the fourth of the quartet, French couturier Léon Poiccard (Sullivan).

The Four Just Men - 1 Poiccard (Sullivan) has it easy - for now

Poiccard (Francis L. Sullivan) has it easy — but for how long?

Terry, who’s dying of emphysema or some similar illness, managed to discover at Regensberg some further details of a dastardly plot against international peace that the Just Men have been investigating. He’s promptly despatched to the Near East to make further inquiries while the other three remain in London to probe leaks of vital intelligence from the Foreign Office. They soon zero in on Myra Hastings (Sherwood), the much younger wife of a senior Foreign Office official. She’s been passing the secrets to her lover, Frank Snell (Sydney), who has in turn been passing them to the pacifist—i.e., fifth columnist—MP Sir Hamar Ryman (Napier). When Mansfield, in the guise of a CID officer, visits Mrs. Hastings’s home and makes it clear that her activities aren’t quite as secret as she might have hoped, she hurries to consult with Snell . . . who, recognizing her as a weak link, chucks her down an elevator shaft.

The Four Just Men - 2 Press, cops and Ann (Lee) after Myra Hastings's murder

The press, the cops and Ann Lodge (Anna Lee) crowd round after
the murder of Myra Hastings (Lydia Sherwood).

Fashion reporter Ann Lodge (Lee) of the Daily Sun has persuaded her editor, B.J. Burrell (Chapman), to let her go on the crime beat for a while. While she’s looking into the death of Mrs. Hastings she discovers the involvement of Brodie—whom she earlier met at one of Poiccard’s dress shows—and in due course of the others. She doesn’t really start putting two and two together, however, until Terry, having returned from abroad only to be injected with a killer toxin by Snell at Victoria Station, staggers into Poiccard’s apartment and tells her what’s going on. They’re startled by a gun-wielding Snell, whom Terry shoots moments before expiring.

The Four Just Men - 3 Snell (Sydney) watches Sir Hamar speak

Snell (Basil Sydney) watches a public hustings speech by Sir Hamar Ryman MP (Alan Napier).

The plot of the Nazis (never directly identified, but there’s archive footage of Hitler as a clue) is to sink the UK vessel the Marie-Louise in the Suez Canal, thereby blocking it to other shipping, and then to attack the UK’s oil supplies in the Near East. Meanwhile Sir Hamar’s task is to promote disarmament in the House of Commons. The tale becomes one of a race against time as the remaining Three Just Men try to nullify Sir Hamar’s efforts while keeping their own identities secret from all except Ann, who, it is implied in the final moments, has sworn herself to secrecy and become, in effect, part of the cadre.

The Four Just Men - 4 Ann (Lee) begins to cotton on

She may be just a fashion reporter, but Ann (Anna Lee) is beginning to cotton on.

Made at Ealing Studios, the movie was clearly intended as a patriotic, propagandistic rallying cry. It was really quite prescient about the seriousness of the Nazi threat and the near-inevitability of war; where the forecasting fails is in its assumption that the US would from the outset be a part of the effort to suppress the Nazis. Indicative of the fact that this optimism was that the movie’s distribution in the US—where, pre-Pearl Harbor, the calls for non-intervention in “Europe’s war” were strident and where much of the business community supported Hitler—was through B-feature specialists Monogram.

 

The Four Just Men - 5 a dreadful warning for Sir Hamar

A dreadful warning for Sir Hamar.

While the willingness of the Four Just Men to “execute” those who stand in their way may not seem too radical to us today, indoctrinated as we have been by numberless espionage and other movies where the “good guys” routinely rack up high body counts, it was clearly seen otherwise in 1939; after setting a lethal trap for Sir Hamar, Mansfield is visibly shaken by what he’s just done and declares his need of a stiff drink. (In the novel, the Four Just Men were less troubled by conscience.)

The Four Just Men - 6 Mansfield, in the guise of Sir Hamar, addresses the House of Commons

Mansfield (Hugh Sinclair), in the guise of Sir Hamar, addresses the House of Commons.

This was the second time Wallace’s novel had been adapted for the big screen, the first being the silent The Four Just Men (1921) dir George Ridgwell, with Cecil Humphreys, Teddy Arundell, Charles Croker-King, Charles Tilson-Chowne and Owen Roughwood. Much later, a 39-episode UK television series based on the novel’s premise, The Four Just Men, aired 1959–60, with stars Richard Conte, Jack Hawkins, Vittorio De Sica and Dan Dailey.

 

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On Amazon.com: The Four Just Men [PAL Reg.2 Import DVD] or The Secret Column (watch it online under stupid variant title).

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5 thoughts on “Four Just Men, The (1939)

  1. “Made at Ealing Studios, the movie was clearly intended as a patriotic, propagandistic rallying cry. It was really quite prescient about the seriousness of the Nazi threat and the near-inevitability of war; where the forecasting fails is in its assumption that the US would from the outset be a part of the effort to suppress the Nazis.”

    John, this is one of a number of films made during this time in the UK that was meant in part as a rallying cry. I am very sorry to say I have not seen this film, but be rest assured this is one of the most appealing films that I have not yet seen to appear at NOIRISH. The fabulous cast, cinematographer Ronald Neame and producer Michael Balcon (grandfather of superstar actor Daniel-Day Lewis) alone make this a must-see, and I will surely investigate obtaining a copy from the listed source. Absolutely superb review!

  2. Pingback: April 2014: Classic crime in the blogosphere | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

    • I was hoping to reread the book in conjunction with the movie but, alas, our county library system has barely heard of Edgar Wallace — they had Flat 2 and Room 13 and that was it except for various versions of King Kong. It’s about time a publisher in this country had the wit to get the US rights from the Wallace estate; if the estate’s own collected edition is being distributed here, it’s no more than minimally.

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