Talkin’ Oldies: The List Of Adrian Messenger (1963)
This is the second John Huston movie to be examined in the Talkin’ Oldies series. The first, Heaven Knows, Mr Allison, is undoubtedly the better of the two films… but The List Of Adrian Messenger is nevertheless a good, solid mystery thriller in the old-fashioned tradition. It offers a rare chance to see director John Huston serving up an atypically light-hearted style of film.
Huston usually champions dark and difficult stories in which flawed characters undergo moral and religious crises (Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, The Misfits, Night Of The Iguana to name but a few). However, with The List of Adrian Messenger the director is in a more playful mood, creating a light and frothy suspense comedy reminiscent of the kind of thing Hitchcock was making at that time. Not only does it come across as a likable and exciting film, it also has a rather intriguing gimmick of which more will be said later.
The plot finds retired British Intelligence agent Anthony Gethryn (miscast George C. Scott, struggling with his inconsistent English accent) investigating the murder of Adrian Messenger in a sabotaged plane. Shortly before his death, Adrian had predicted that an attempt would be made on his life… and Gethryn is understandably intrigued when Adrian’s prediction proves true.
Aided by a survivor from the plane blast, Raoul LeBorg (Jacques Roux), Gethryn discovers the killing is connected to a list that Adrian passed on just before his demise. It becomes apparent that the murders are the work of George Brougham (Kirk Douglas), a wartime informer and long-lost brother of a British aristocrat. Adrian’s list contains various names, all witnesses to an act of wartime treason committed by Brougham.
In order to claim his fabulous inheritance, Brougham has been deviously murdering everyone who witnessed his past misdemeanour. The list shows that Brougham is only two killings away from claiming his prize, leaving Gethryn to race against time to ensnare the villain before his sinister scheme is complete.
The gimmick in the film is that four major stars have brief guest roles beneath heavy make-up. Tony Curtis, Robert Mitchum, Frank Sinatra and Burt Lancaster are the stars, cunningly concealed under layers of Bud Westmore’s ingenious make-up. They’re generally quite hard to spot in these clever disguises, apart from Robert Mitchum who looks like, well, Robert Mitchum. At the end of the movie there’s an amusing epilogue in which each actor peels off his disguise to show which character he’s been playing throughout the film.
It’s an interesting gimmick, though several reviewers have pointed out that in some ways it diverts the viewer’s attention away from important plot developments. If you forget the gimmick and watch The List of Adrian Messenger purely as a suspense thriller, it still holds up pretty well thanks to its clever twists and a very memorable climactic sequence in which Brougham plans an elaborate killing during a fox hunt.
Jerry Goldsmith provides a jaunty score which foreshadows many of the classic themes he would provide in later films. The performances too are generally sound, other than Scott’s uncharacteristically stiff turn as the British hero. The pick of the actors is probably Kirk Douglas, whose charming villain has all the best lines and is easily the most well rounded character in Anthony Veiller’s script (adapted from the Philip MacDonald novel of the same name).
All in all, it’s not the best film ever made nor the worst… but The List Of Adrian Messenger is certainly a lot of fun and a welcome opportunity to catch this most intense of directors in uncommonly breezy form.
FMV Rating *** ½