BFI Southbank, London
3 December 2017
(Warning: Contains Spoilers)
Today saw yet another of those annoying silent film fixture clashes. Was it to be Pandora’s Box at the Phoenix with Stephen Horne or The Four Just Men at the BFI with Neil Brand. (What we really need is for some sad, nerdy character to draw up a sort of calendar setting out what silent films are playing when in order to prevent just this sort of situation!) Anyway, much though I love Pandora’s Box, its a film I’ve seen many times before so today’s choice had to be the rarely screened, and new to me, The Four Just Men. In the event, this was probably a mistake but more of that later.
The film kicks off with the secretive four just men themselves, Manfred (Cecil Humphreys), Poiccart (Owen Roughwood), Gonzalez (George Bellamy and Thery (Charles Crocker-King), planning what steps they would next take against industrialist Sir Phillip Ramon (Teddy Arundell) in order to halt his exploitation of his workforce. When a bomb (albeit without a detonator) is placed in one of Ramon’s factories as a warning he remains undeterred. But as a result, the police in the form of Inspector Falmouth (Charles Tilson-Chowne) are soon on the trail of the four just men.
When a newspaper, The Megaphone, publicises an offer of a big reward if one of the four will turn the others in, Thery is tempted and goes to surrender himself to the newspaper’s editor. But the other three are on his trail and manage to catch him (image, left) and return him to their hide-out before the police can be called. In order to underline their apparent invincibility the four announce that they will personally deliver a final warning to Ramon. But in planning their next move one of the four has his note book containing their plans stolen by a petty thief, Billy Marks (Robert Vallis). When Marks is arrested the police make the connection between the note book and the four just men. They offer the thief a deal to let him go and promise him the reward if he will seek out and identify the man who he stole the note book from.
Meanwhile, one of the four manages to impersonate Inspector Falmouth and personally deliver the final warning to Ramon that he will be executed at eight that evening if he does not improve the conditions of his workforce. They also manage to capture Marks before he can identify any of the four and imprison him in a basement.
As eight o’clock approaches, Ramon is locked in his study with police guarding the door. But the four have managed to tamper with Ramon’s phone line and plan to electrocute him when he answers it. Before they can put the plan into operation Thery himself is electrocuted and killed. When Ramon answers the phone he too looks to have been killed. The police subsequently receive a letter from Marks, now in America, saying that the four have freed him and paid him off so he will not be revealing their identity. But in fact Ramon is not dead. However, the shock of his near electrocution has changed his ways and he has become a model employer. The remaining three just men congratulate themselves on their failure to kill Ramon, which worked out for the better in the end.
Although this 1921 original film version of The Four Just Men has survived pretty much in its entirety and in a reasonably good condition, it is nevertheless a silent film that has been almost completely forgotten. It is very rarely screened, there is little information about it and hardly even a still from the film appears to exist.
The film is based upon a novel of the same name written in 1905 by journalist and prolific author Edgar Wallace. This was Wallace’s first published work and an instant success, based largely on a somewhat misconceived advertising ploy. Wallace offered a large cash prize for anyone who could guess the ending to the story. Unfortunately so many people guessed correctly that he eventually had to declare bankruptcy. But the publicity certainly put him on the map and he went on to write some 957 short stories and 170 novels together with 18 screen plays before his sudden death in 1932 while working on a script for King Kong (1933). His written output was such that his publisher claimed that a quarter of the books being written in Britain at that time were by Wallace.
In her introduction to the film, the BFI’s Bryony Dixon described The Four Just Men as a surprisingly competent and well made thriller. However, this did come with the rider that this was in comparison to somewhat inferior standard of most other British films of the era and as such it remained a fairly routine picture and ‘nothing fancy’.
And ‘nothing fancy’ is probably the kindest words you can say about The Four Just Men. If it had been a talkie, I’d have put it very much in the ‘B’ Picture category, the sort of thing that crops up on Talking Pictures TV in the graveyard slot. The film has just so many unanswered questions. Why, for example, are four foreign ‘just men’ active in Britain to further worker’s rights. Where do they come from and what is their angle. And why is one of them being held virtually against his will by the other three simply because of his technical expertise?
Very little stands out in the acting department other than Robert Vallis as Billy Marks in an amusing but overly theatrical characterisation of the Cockney wide-boy. There are also some wildly funny but presumably unintentional comedic moments as, for example, when Thery airily disregards all the health and safety advice of his colleagues and then naturally proceeds to electrocute himself! The film was also somewhat odd in its total lack of female characters. Not only no female star or lowly co-stars but not even amongst the extras or background characters was there a single female face. Amongst the film’s few positives was some nice location shooting around the original Scotland Yard, the Old War Office and the Sphinx on the Thames Embankment. But all-in-all, The Four Just Men was a bit of a clunker.
The film was made by Stoll Pictures and shot at their Cricklewood Studios in North London. At the time, Stoll was the biggest film production company in Britain and one of the biggest in Europe. But its pictures had a reputation for dullness, with technical competence often far exceeding popular appeal. In adapting Wallace’s book for the screen director and script-writer George Ridgwell altered the plot considerably. In the original story, the four just men were something of an international terrorist group, targeting the British Foreign Secretary to prevent him enacting legislation to extradite one of their group to Europe where he would face execution. The changing of the plot in effect changed the character of the four just men. No longer falling into the anti-hero category they could now almost be seen as (albeit somewhat over zealous! ) campaigners for social justice, acting to improve the lot of the working man, and therefore a much more sympathetic central focus.
Amongst the film’s stars, it was only really Cecil Humphreys who went on to greater things, successfully making the transition to talkies and continuing in primarily minor roles until his death in the mid 1940s. He is probably best known for playing Judge Linton in the 1939 version of Wuthering Heights (Dir. William Wyler, US) alongside Merle Oberon and Lawrence Olivier. Director George Ridgwell is probably best known for going on to direct a long string of Sherlock Holmes adaptions with Ellie Norwood (image, right) starring as the great detective. Ridgwell eventually directed 30 out of the 45 Holmes adaptions made by Stoll.
A further film adaption of The Four Just Men would be made in 1939 (image, left) with the story again being reworked, this time as a World War One spy thriller starring Hugh Sinclair, Griffin Jones and a very young Jon Pertwee. There was also a 39 episode TV series (image, right) made in 1959 starring Dan Dailey, Jack Hawkins and Vittorio de Sica.
Although the afternoon’s film may have been rather more of a miss than a hit, the same was not true of the piano accompaniment from Neil Brand. As always, this was top notch and certainly helped in adding some tension and drama to the somewhat disappointing on-screen visuals.
(NB No sign of The Four Just Men on disc or on-line. )