Dec 13, 2011

DVD Review: The Four Just Men

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. 

The leads themselves belie a bygone era in television, when programs were targeted at adults, and not kids. In other words, they’re all old, each one whiter and more Establishment than the one before. There was no room in ITC’s 1959 stable for Jason King’s bouffant or Brett Sinclair’s shaggy do and hip, trendy (maybe?) duds. The four leads are all past-it movie stars–some more past it than others. There’s British war film stalwart Jack Hawkins as Ben Manfred, a member of Parliament based (quite naturally) in London. There’s Italian arthouse darling Vittorio de Sica(!!!) as partisan resistance fighter-turned-hotelier Ricco Poccari, who operates out of Rome.  Then there are the two Americans, ubiquitous film noir face Richard Conte as New York-based lawyer Jeff Ryder, and veteran Hollywood actor Dan Dailey (who has the sort of lumpy, hard-drinking face that could only become famous on black and white Forties film stock) as Tim Collier, a hotshot journalist who works out of Paris. Each one has a regular assistant, but the only interesting ones are Andrew Kier as Jock, Manfred’s Scottish manservant, and–particularly!–Honor Blackman as Nicole, Tim’s lovely French secretary. (Conte and de Sica are assigned more standard-issue central casting beauties who leave no impression.) Blackman, looking amazingly young, makes the most of her limited role. She is a secretary and a Girl Friday and a love interest for Tim (although I honestly can’t imagine what she sees in him), but she’s got a quick wit and she imbues the character with an independent spark that prefigures her defining role as Cathy Gale on The Avengers. Don’t get me wrong; Nicole is no Cathy Gale (and never gets to use judo), but she is more than just a pretty face–thanks as much to what the actress brings as what’s on the page.

The men’s careers–and moreso their locations–define the sorts of adventures they have to a certain degree, but of course in ITC Land anyone can happen upon kidnappers or spies or blackmailers at any time. I found Manfred’s episodes to generally have the most interesting plots–and the most espionage-heavy. Tim also gets some good ones as a reporter and as an American in Paris. Poccari’s are a mixed bag; they’re either very cool (like taking on Charles Grey as an Arab slaver or solving one of those classic “someone overpaid for a bad painting because it contained hidden secrets” cases) or very lame (usually involving orphans or urchins or some variation thereupon). In either case, he definitely brings something slightly different to the table, being noticeably older than the others. He rarely relies on fisticuffs (although he does rather brutally poke a henchman’s eye out with his cane!) or gunplay, instead using his charm and keen intellect to unravel his monthly thirty-minute mysteries. Richard Conte is not a bad performer (in fact, he makes a more appealing lead than Dan Dailey), but his character gets all the most boring cases. Perhaps it’s just because I live in America that I find the American setting (mainly New York, but he also frequently travels to Small Town USA) fairly boring compared to Rome or London or Paris, but I don’t think so. His legal profession also tends to lead to these boring cases, shoehorning his stories into a genre I could care less about. They play out like the worst of Fifties American television; of the Conte episodes I watched, I can’t recommend a single one. (Jeff gets involved in things like defending the pretty outsider accused of poisoning from the close-knit-community-turned-angry-mob-riled-up-by-respected-community-leader physically as well as in court, and prison riots, and New York race wars right out of West Side Story. Boooring.)

The most problematic aspect of the premise of The Four Just Men is determining which causes, exactly, are “just.” In the pilot (ostensibly based on an Edgar Wallace book which had already spawned two feature films), the men’s Justice-obsessed wartime commanding officer kicks the bucket and the executor of his estate summons the four men to his castle, where he reads a will bequeathing them a vast fund to spend towards forwarding the cause of Justice. He also leaves it up to them to determine what constitutes “Justice.” The Four Just Men are famous world-wide, and generally respected. Local police wherever they go have no problems with turning over their cases to famous vigilantes and look on in awe when the Just Men–who report to no one but each other–flout the word of the law in the name of the more intangible concept of Justice. And, honestly, their idea of Justice is not really anyone’s but old, white, rich dudes of the 1950s. For example, Manfred readily agrees to hush up a dying Peer’s involvement in art theft (is that really Justice?), but just as readily runs down a “rough-looking” (read: lower class) sod who seems out of place at a snooty art auction. (This not being boundary-pushing television, the rough-looking sod turns out to actually be involved, and not just a red herring.) Tim is always ready to help a beautiful, wealthy blackmail victim, even if she’s being blackmailed for something utterly reprehensible like her part in a deadly hit-and-run accident. And, in the most egregious example of questionable Justice, Tim decides to aid a philandering politician not only in extricating himself from a blackmail plot, but also in covering up his affair! 

That episode is “Les Beatniques,” and it typifies not only the show’s loose ideas of Justice at their worst, but also its complete lack of understanding its potential young audience. A senator, played by future Felix Leiter Cec Linder, wrote love letters to a fading actress that a trio of leather-clad, Abe Lincoln beard-wearing, French beatniks (or “beatniques”) have stolen for blackmail.

“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.”

Tim wouldn’t be able to pass himself off as a beatnik (not that Nimoy pulled it off, but at least he tried), though he does earn the compliment from a beatnick girl that he doesn’t dance too badly for a square! At the end of the episode (lesson time), he puts on his thick, professorial glasses and reads some of the beats’ poetry, quickly dismissing it as “suicide notes” and accusing them of writing off the world in their words.

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!

Poccari seems to specialize in the most clichéd plots, but I guess it bears remembering that they weren’t quite so clichéd back then. So maybe the glass-half-full way to view them is that he starred in more templates for future ITC episodes than anyone else! “The Crying Jester” is the one where Poccari buys a terrible painting he was never meant to buy and finds himself chased by various parties willing to kill for it. Since it can’t be its artistic merit, obviously it’s the secrets it conceals that attract the would-be buyers. It’s trite, sure, but it’s also one of the series’ more entertaining episodes! “Night of the Precious Stones” is the one where a rich dowager has her jewels stolen at a swanky function at one of Poccari’s hotels and the gang is all rounded up, except for their mastermind. It couldn’t possibly be a woman, could it? And certainly not a woman with whom Poccari is well acquainted? I'll never say…

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.

For a modern-day muckraker who stumbled upon it, the fact that the wife of the American Ambassador was involved in a horrible hit-and-run and then covered it up would be a major news story. Not for Tim Collier. She’s part of the Establishment, and therefore deserves his protection. He’ll reserve his Justice instead for the person who dares to blackmail her about her culpability in “The Man in the Road.” When he’s not protecting guilty politicos and their consorts, though, Tim gets the fun stuff like chasing a radioactive capsule around rural France in “The Deadly Capsule” and preventing political assassinations. In one of his better episodes, “The Prime Minister,” Honor Blackman gets to take on a meatier role, ably assisting Tim by doing spy duties (like staking out a posh hotel lobby and then taking initiative on her own and following a suspect) as he sets out to stop one such assassination.

“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
The Baron
Sentimental Agent


Armstrong Sabian said...

Scrolling through after just waking up, planning to come back and read later..."Whoa! Vittorio De Sica!"

Nick Jones (Louis XIV, the Sun King) said...

Off topic, but earlier today I posted this news item on the return of Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm novels to print...


michael said...

I wonder if this was the first TV series to use the stars' version of the "Wheel" format, where the stars rotate every week.

When you mention the "Wheel" format, most think of NBC MYSTERY MOVIE with COLUMBO, etc, but there was the cast version such as NAME OF THE GAME and SEARCH.

There were anthologies that had recurring characters but that is not the same as a single premise with rotating leads.

Can anyone think of an earlier example of the cast "Wheel" series?

dfordoom said...

I really want to see this series. It sounds old-fashioned, which is why the idea appeals to me. Unfortunately it's horrifically expensive.

Anonymous said...

I do wonder whether the repeating plot-lines in ITC series had less to do with Britain being unable to let go of WWII, and more with there only being about ten writers for ITC shows. They did write for an era when you couldn't check out shows from a few years back, and most of them seem to have had a number of stock plots which they would dust down and use whenever they could. It might be fun to list all of the cliche stories (amnesia/brainwash/compromised village/WWII traitor/and so on and so on....)

J R's Piece said...

Honor Blackman gets to go on a stake out in The Prime Minister. Then she sees her future husband, Maurice Kaufmann walk in. He is a villain. He has a scene with Frank Thornton, who has at least a dozen different roles on this show. In the first Dan Dailey episode, he plays two parts, six minutes apart.

I've been watching this
(which I purchased new and cheaply on Ebay) along with Interpol Calling and I agree that Manfred's stories grab me the most and Conte's are the least interesting. The idea of justice is sometimes amusing with The Four Just Men ready to hush up a politician's or a Lord's scandalous activities. The Saints and Avengers book does discuss lineage from The Four Just Men to The Persuaders in terms of format and sharing Basil Dearden as director. He directed his wife, Melissa Stribling on both shows too.

Tanner said...

I can't remember if I watched "The Prime Minister" or not. I'll have to check and, if not, watch it! I love Chapman's Saints and Avengers book. That was key in getting me into ITC shows! And your comment also reminded me that I never posted my Interpol Calling review. I wrote one years ago, when the Network set came out, but got bogged down in screengrabs and I guess it slipped through the cracks. I'll have to resurrect that post.