For his second American production, F.W. Murnau took the cameras to the top of a circus arena, and followed the melodramatic predicaments of four trapeze artist, whose name of 4 Devils provides the title of the film. In particular, the film focuses on the tragic debacle of the love affair between two of its members, Marion and Charles, after Charles is lured into a bad romance by a wealthy temptress. The affair deeply affects Marion, whose broken-heart leads her to such emotional stress that she resolves to a tragic ending.
There are three versions of said ending, of those that were written and/or shot. One sees Marion killing herself and her beau in the process, during a performance without a safety net. In Murnau’s original version, it is Charles who, drunk and tired, falls to an apparent death, somehow miraculously surviving the accident. In the third and final version, re-shot after an early preview in June 1928, Marion throws herself consciously to her death. She survives the accident, but the fall reconciles her with the apologetic Charles.
The theme of a man’s unfaithfulness returns from Murnau’s previous outing, Sunrise. One can only imagine, however, what value the acrobatic spectacle suggested by the circus aeralist aspect of the film would have brought to its composition. Another parallel with Sunrise can be found in the return of actress Janet Gaynor in a Murnau production. Here, she plays the role of Marion. She was described in a December 1928 issue ofPhotoplay as giving a “a sympathetic, sincere and touching performance. She has remarkable personality and persuasive charm.”
Overall, the film was very well received by critics, who also praised the film’s starting sequences, which shows the same four as orphan kids, beaten and trained by an unscrupulous circus owner, who escape their tutor thanks to a good-natured ageing clown.
Fox Studios produced 4 Devils, and had originally intended to make it a silent, before opting for it to be re-shot with sync sound synchronised sound effects, music and dialogue sequences. Murnau had nothing to do with this particular version, but they can hardly be compared, as both are lost. In fact, the last record of this film’s existance comes from the 40’s, when it was a apparently taken out of the Fox warehouse in Los Angeles by Marion Davis, who plays the role of the vampish temptress in 4 Devil. Her performance was highlighted as a weak point of the production, seen as exaggerated and old fashioned. Photoplay described it as “a flashback to the days of Theda Bara” (poor Theda Bara was often used as a reference point of old fashioned sexuality in film the negative way.) The film was apparently destroyed in a fire, or drowned in a swimming pool by Davies, who had apparently taken the film out to screen to a group of friends, and then, aware of the dangers of nitrate film, destroyed it herself, taking for granted that Fox would have had more copies. She was wrong. It was in fact, as far as we know to this day, the only one. Her mistake was likened by film historian and collector William K. Everson as ranking with Balaclava, Sarajevo and the Fall of Babylon.
Details about the movie can be found on some DVD releases of Sunrise, some of which even feature a video essay by Janet Bergstrom, which presents all the surviving stills and sketches and other evidence from the Four Devils production. Murnau was to make two more films after 4 Devils, City Girl and Tabu, before dying in a car accident during the final stages of the production of his final film.
4 DEVILS (1928, USA): Directed by: F.W. Murnau / Produced by: William Fox / Written by: Carl Meyer (based on the novel Les Quatre Diables byHerman Bang) / Starring: Janet Gaynor, Charles Morton, Mary Duncan, Barry Norton / Music by: Erno Rapee, Lew Pollack / Cinematography: Ernest Palmer