The List of Adrian Messenger

Movie Information

The Hendersonville Film Society will show The List of Adrian Messenger at 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 26, in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.
Genre: Mystery With a Gimmick
Director: John Huston
Starring: George C. Scott, Dana Wynter, Clive Brook, Jacques Roux, Herbert Marshall
Rated: NR

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.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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2 thoughts on “The List of Adrian Messenger

  1. I managed to acquire the film at a VHS clearance sale some years back. As I recall, I enjoyed it, especially the opening titles, the scene between Scott and Adrian Messenger (which when you think of it, is a great name for the cliched type who shows up merely to supply exposition or a McGuffin and is then promptly dispatched), the mood and style in general… but the gimmick was overdone, since I did feel I would have enjoyed it more on its own or at least with the gimmick toned down.

    Indeed, a similar idea was used in the Rathbone Holmes outing THE SCARLET CLAW, so I would have been fine with it, even with the specific star casting. But the other cameos are excessive, as gimmicks or red herrings (they scarcely work as the latter), and as added distraction, may or may not even be the stars in question (outside of the reveal at the end). Definitely at least one or two were dubbed by Paul Frees (who also dubbed some of the European players, which I don’t think helps), and stories have persisted that body doubles were used in certain cases, especially Sinatra’s (it’s not his voice, and the shadowy shooting and height make one wonder). It’s definitely Douglas and (if I recall) Mitchum for at least most of their scenes (in Douglas’ case especially, it’s understandable if someone else filled in for spots since the prosthetics did *not* look at all comfortable), and I at least like to think Burt Lancaster in that rather absurd role (which I got the biggest kick out of, whoever played it, at the end).

    It’s not the worst gimmick film though, Scott was indeed great (intelligent and rational film detectives, when you get down to it, not relying overmuch on convenient plot convolutions or luck, are rare) and I really should rewatch it, since I scarcely recall most of the murder methods or the plot (apart from the tontine element, or so it seemed at the time).

  2. Ken Hanke

    But the other cameos are excessive, as gimmicks or red herrings (they scarcely work as the latter), and as added distraction, may or may not even be the stars in question (outside of the reveal at the end).

    That pretty much is the case. I suspect Mitchum is mostly Mitchum (maybe entirely) and Douglas almost certainly is at least most of the time. Some of the makeups don’t even really try to hide that it is him.

    The film is definitely worth a look and it’s now available as a DVD-R — and anamorphically enhanced for widescreen.

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