If Undercover (1943) was an unexpected find that played with existing conventions from Ealing’s wartime productions, The Four Just Men is an even more interesting discovery, a solid and enjoyable pre-war thriller from 1939 that offers an early example of the drama-propaganda production approach that would soon dominate the studio. Expertly handled by director Walter Forde and director of photography Roland Neame, with a taut and morally ambiguous script from Angus Macphail, Sergei Nolbandov (director of Undercover) and Roland Pertwee (based on the Edgar Wallace story), this presents Ealing as a strong purveyor of crime drama.
James Terry (Frank Lawton), James Brodie (Griffith Jones), Leon Poiccard (Francis L. Sullivan), and Humphrey Mansfield (Hugh Sinclair) 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. Holding down less-than-ordinary jobs, each can be seen as a pseudo-Batman figure: upper class dandies and well-regarded socialites by day, dangerous and violent crime-fighters by night. Through the film, they investigate traitorous MP Sir Hamar Ryman (Alan Napier), who has sold out his country but also holds the key to preventing further sabotage and potential ruination.
This thriller storyline remains solid throughout, with some enjoyable touches both deft and daft (Humphrey, an actor, is – naturally – a master of disguise, allowing Sinclair to indulge in different wigs, moustaches, and clothes, leading to a final performance where Humphrey (Sinclair) has to imitate Ryman (Napier) in Parliament), and a romance sub-plot between Brodie and female journalist Ann Lodge (Anna Lee) that demonstrates her own crime reporting and detective skills (linking Brodie to the Four Just Men, recognising the scent of a murdered woman’s perfume) rather than just being a convenient feminine presence to fall into Brodie’s arms. The relationship between them is reminiscent of a good screwball comedy at times, and there is a hint by the end that the Four Just Men may now be the Three Just Men and One Just Woman.
The film also contains more creative visual touches than I remember from Forde’s The Gaunt Stranger (1938) or Cheer Boys Cheer (1939): mobile camerawork in the opening sequences (and throughout) that reframes and refocuses on objects in the frame, telling a story visually without relying on dialogue or voiceover; the usual reliance on montage to move quickly through exposition; and Ealing’s usual competent blend of location shooting (some outside the Houses of Parliament) and studio-based work. There is also what would (these days) be embraced as a metatextual or postmodern storytelling device: playwright Brodie uses the experiences of the Four Just Men for the plays he writes (which Humphrey acts in, and for which Poiccard provides the costumes!) At a party early on, Brodie describes his latest plot (about a traitorous MP) as needing a final act – which the film then provides, and we see the cast gathered around a radio set to hear the final moments of the play of the Four Just Men’s latest triumph, with an addendum (added once war had begun) that while the Men were not able to prevent the powers of oppression and tyranny, ‘democracy has risen to answer that challenge.’
Keeping the world safe for democracy, and killing in a variety of entertaining and thrilling ways: in places, The Four Just Men feels like an early attempt at a Bond film...
[UPDATED April 2014: The Four Just Men is now available as part of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection, Volume 2, from Network]
Next time, Ealing tries its hand at a Gainsborough-style period drama in its first colour film, Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948)...