John Huston’s The List of Adrian Messenger (1963) is a thoroughly enjoyable murder mystery in the classic style. The film features a solid performance from George C. Scott as the detective, Jacques Roux as his makeshift Watson, and a touch of old Hollywood from the presence of Clive Brook and Herbert Marshall. The mystery, while unremarkable, is certainly reasonable enough—or it would have been if it weren’t for the movie’s gimmick. The idea was to put a number of stars—Tony Curtis, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum, Frank Sinatra—in heavy character makeup and let the audience try to spot them. Not only is the game distracting, it stops the whodunit aspect dead in its tracks by making the most undisguisable of those stars into the killer. What you’re left with is the enjoyment of watching Scott puzzle it out. And it’s enough, but it’s still frustrating.
I will admit that watching the film for this review, I liked it better than I ever had before—perhaps because I wasn’t expecting much. It had bored me when I was a kid and annoyed me as a young man. Now it seems like such a congenial relic of a bygone age that it’s hard not to enjoy. No one makes mysteries anymore—except Brit TV—and no one at all makes them quite this way. There’s a charm and an appeal in that. And truthfully, there’s a charm to the whole gimmick idea—as long as you don’t expect it to much disguise the identity of the killer. There’s not much doubt that you’ll spot the guest stars—the character makeup is so obviously character makeup—but you might not guess which star is behind which makeup in every case.
As noted, the mystery is no great shakes, but it’s as good as it needs to be for the procession of—frequently rather showy—murders. What happened to murderers with a sense of style? No one thinks to rig up an elevator to plunge a man to his doom these days. And certainly no one blows up an entire airliner to dispose of one person. Perhaps I’m just old-fashioned—and in many ways I know that’s true—but I can’t help but feel the movies have lost something by eschewing this kind of thing.