DVD Review: The Four Just Men
The Four Just Men was one of ITC’s earliest stabs at a contemporary adventure series. As such, its primary interest for fans of the genre will be a historical one. While not all the usual suspects had a hand in the scripts and direction (Brian Clemens’ name is noticeably absent from any credits), this series (which ran from 1959-60) clearly established the regular episodic formula that would form the foundation of all of ITC’s Sixties output. As I’ve written many times before, the company’s usual setup is following a man with a slightly unusual job (antiques dealer, import/export agent, photojournalist, playboy, etc.), and then ignoring whatever that job is and instead thrusting him into spy plots week after week in exotic locations via stock footage and studio backlots. This being before the advent of Bondmania sparked by Dr. No and, perhaps even more relevantly, before the British TV spy craze launched by Danger Man and The Avengers well before Sean Connery ever gulped down his first on-screen vodka martini, more of the plots are standard-issue mysteries (reflecting the private eye genre prevalent in the previous decade)–but a surprising percentage of them are still espionage-related. It was the Cold War, after all. If you were telling adventure stories, you simply couldn’t escape such plots.
Anyway, the slight twist on the regular formula with The Four Just Men is that instead of following a single hero, we follow four of them–individually. After a pilot that serves as an origin story and shows our four heroes all meeting in WWII–and later being reunited in tragic circumstances and signing a pact to uphold justice in their own ways–the leads rotate, and only one of them carries each story. Contrary to what I’d read about this series prior to its DVD release, however, that’s not to say that they never interact. At least one other Just Man (generally the one from the week prior or the one who will take center stage the following week) pops up in every episode–usually only via telephone, though. Several episodes feature all four Just Men contributing from their respective home bases in London, Paris, New York and Rome. This practice certainly adds to the series’ continuity and makes it feel more whole, and not just like an anthology show.
“Isn’t there anything we can do?” exclaims the actress.
“Not unless I can find the Martians before six o’clock,” says Tim, his face grave.
“Martians?” queries the senator.
“Well that’s what we’re up against,” lectures Tim. “A whole generation of weird kids that might as well come from Mars or any other planet for all you’ll understand about them.” He manages to look really weird himself–not to mention old and out of it–as he delivers those lines. Comparing this encounter with the Mission:Impossible episode less than a decade later in which series star Leonard Nimoy pretends to be one of those weird kids is demonstrative of the change that the television industry would undergo in the Sixties. By the end of the decade, the networks in both Britain and America would realize that their most profitable audience was the younger generation—the “martians.”
One beat defends his position, arguing, “There are no answers.”
“Well how would you know?” asks Tim sanguinely. “You’ve never bothered to ask any questions.” Oh, snap! Apparently in his effort to quell the percolating youth rebellion, Tim just inadvertently started the whole question-asking beatnik movement! He’s much less appealing when Honor Blackman’s not at his side to mitigate his unrelenting curmudgeonliness.
Of course, Justice isn’t always so grey; sometimes it’s black and white and clear-cut. But even then it can be hard to suss out the truth. Manfred is forced to ask some tough questions in “The Survivor,” in which future Blofeld Donald Pleasence is either a concentration camp survivor with a list of Nazis in hiding, or else he’s a neo-Nazi agent with a list meant to discredit innocent people and former resistance fighters. It’s up to Manfred to determine which in a pretty compelling tale of terrorism and genocide that goes to pretty Callan-y dark places for a Fifties show.
Another future Blofeld, Charles Grey, shows up twice on this series, most memorably as an Arab sheik running the North African slave trade from Rome in “The Slaver.” That’s a pretty brutal episode, with unrepentantly nasty villains—and not in a Blofeld way, but in a gritty, ugly way. Right off the bat, a slaver shoots three black kidnap victims and dumps them in the water, pondering, “I wonder if the sharks like black meat?” As the chief slaver, Grey even smacks around his pretty girlfriend. The slavers in question are unscrupulous travel agents who book passage to the Holy City on pilgrimages, then instead kidnap their passengers and sell them as cargo.
“Doesn’t anybody care?” demands an incredulous (white) policeman
“They’re primitive people. Their families just write them off.” explains Poccari with a dismissive wave of his hand, regrettably recalling (to modern viewers) General Westmorland’s infamous Hearts and Minds claim that “the Oriental” doesn’t value life the same way Westerners do. It’s a good thing the old white Just Men care, since the black victims’ “primitive” families don’t! At least Just Man Poccari is well-meaning, even if he’s racist, too, in his own way. He deals these brutal villains a taste of their own medicine; this is the episode in which he pokes a henchman in the eye with his cane through an arras. It looks quite painful!
Manfred has his share of pre-cliché classics as well, but his still tend to be my favorite episodes, for the most part. In “The Deserter,” Manfred finds himself defending a soldier accused of desertion despite the fact that the man has confessed. Only Manfred is convinced of his innocence. Who is he protecting? And why is he so confident in the face of a firing squad? The answer is a pretty good twist, but the real reason this one’s notable is for its guest cast. The young soldier accused of desertion is none other than Richard Johnson, who was not only a candidate for the role of James Bond, but later proved himself to be among the best of the Bond imitators playing a Sixties version of Bulldog Drummond in my favorite Eurospy movie, Deadlier Thanthe Male, and its sequel, Some Girls Do. TV's Sherlock Holmes, Ronald Howard, also appears. Manfred gets the art forgery case, too, in “National Treasure,” and it’s a pretty good one, even if he does display his skewed sense of elitist justice.
“Village of Shame” is both “the one with the whole village full of people with a secret colluding against the one Just Man interloping in their midst (Manfred) and “the one about a wartime collaborator who betrayed his resistance comrades and eluded justice for decades following.” The former is a good enough ITC plot (and possibly even original at this particular vintage) that it makes up for the hackneyed latter, which is especially overused in this series.
The “wartime traitor” trope gets trotted out yet again in “The Rietti Group.” This time it’s Poccari, who attends a reunion dinner of his old partisan compatriots (including Geoffrey Keen) and of course ends up exposing one of them as the traitor who cost them the life of a beloved comrade decades prior. Then the group gets to sentence him to death without the involvement of any courts or anything, because that’s the kind of bonds old resistance fighters share. Yes, ITC, we get it. There were lots of heroes in the war and they still can’t get over the fact that there were also some traitors, even twenty-some years later. We get it! Unbelievably, this plotline would still rear its boring head every couple of weeks on ITC shows throughout the Sixties, proving that England just couldn’t let go of WWII, her greatest glory, as the Empire faded in the postwar world.
While it’s got some fun episodes (as well as some cringe-inducing ones), The Four Just Men is overall most interesting to modern ITC aficionados as a historical artifact. Along with Interpol Calling, it’s a fascinating glimpse at the brief “missing link” era that bridged the gap from Fifties detective procedurals to swinging Sixties spy shows. The heroes are still the stuffy old men of the previous generation, but some of their adventures encompass the globetrotting plotlines that would fuel the Jet Age. ITC would still get a lot of mileage out of some of these plots in future iterations on The Saint, Man in a Suitcase and other shows. The Four Just Men may not be as exciting or even as politically correct (and that’s saying something) as the shows it inspired, but it sets the template, nonetheless. Casual spy fans can easily go on living their lives without ever seeing an episode of The Four Just Men and sleep perfectly soundly. But armchair scholars and television archaeologists who want to trace the origins of their favorite Sixties ITC adventure shows (as well as rabid Honor Blackman fans!) will enjoy seeing their nascent forms in this series. And for that reason, I’m highly grateful to Network for unearthing it.
If you are interested in this show, act fast! Network’s Region2 PAL online exclusive goes on moratorium at the end of the month (Friday, December 30, 2011). After that, you’ll be at the mercy of Ebay vendors.
Read my reviews of some other ITC shows:
Danger Man (aka Secret Agent)
Man in a Suitcase
Read my reviews of some other ITC shows:
Danger Man (aka Secret Agent)
Man in a Suitcase