Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Movies: THE LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER (1963) starring George C. Scott, among many others.

It's Tuesday and that means Tuesday's Overlooked Movies, the weekly meme hosted by Todd Mason at his blog, SWEET FREEDOM. Make sure and check in to see what other overlooked movies other bloggers are talking about today.

Oh how to say this - despite its faults, I LOVE THIS MOVIE!! Even if it is really a big flopperoo of a stinkola film. For those of you who don't know, there's a whole misguided attempt to squeeze in Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, Tony Curtis, Frank Sinatra and Burt Lancaster IN MAKE-UP meant to disguise their movie star looks and identities as they play victims and/or suspects. All I can say, all I've always said is: Whose abysmal idea was this?

Let's get the bad stuff out of the way:
Not only does this stupid gimmick not work, it is so ridiculously obvious that the actors are wearing make-up disguises in their scenes that all it does is distract from what's going on. 1963 was not a good year for prosthetic make-up. It was an appallingly bad concept that should have been nicked by director John Huston in the bud. But no, let's pull the wool over the audience's eyes and then we can all laugh at the end. Hello?! It's a mystery with MANY nasty murders including a blown-up airplane loaded with passengers. Not exactly a laugheroo.

See, here's the thing: if you're going to disguise actors DON'T USE MEN WHOSE FACES WE CAN RECOGNIZE IN OUR SLEEP. DON'T USE MEN WHO HAVE LARGE, RUGGED FACES WITH LARGE PROMINENT FEATURES - hello? Even I can figure that one out and I'm not a make-up expert. I know, I know, THAT was the WHOLE POINT. Famous iconic actors hidden under layers of ugly make-up make for BIG SURPRISE un-masking at the end.

But, here's a question: WHY? Why on earth? What was the point? Did they hate the script that much?

Okay, got that off my chest and boy I feel so much better. Bear with me now...

Back to the story:
The script by Anthony Veiller is quite good. In fact, it's better than the book by Philip MacDonald. The film's ending is actually an improvement on the book's lackluster final pages. So why the film-makers felt they needed a goofy gimmick to sell the movie is beyond me.

Yet I did say I LOVED this movie and, beside the script, here are the main reasons why:

George C. Scott as Anthony Gethryn, Jacques Roux as Raoul Le Borg, and Clive Brook as the Marquis of Gleneyre.

Good movies are easy to love. Bad ones require some finessing, some shtick that makes you want to watch the film over and over even if you know you are not in the presence of greatness. What makes THE LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER memorable - besides a fabulous title and a good script - is something indefinable: the presence of three actors whose warmth and personality jumps off the screen. These are three characters you want to spend time with and fortunately, in this film you do.

I've never seen George C. Scott at work in such a mellow and likable mood (except maybe in THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS, another overlooked film which is not available on Netflix either), he is splendid as Anthony Gethryn, retired MI-5 officer, a genial, brilliant man drawn into solving a seemingly impossible mystery. Scott pretends to an English accent here which I don't mind. He speaks quite well enough. I could watch him in this part over and over and never tire of it. He is simply wonderful.

Jacques Roux as the Frenchman Raoul Le Borg, a survivor of the previously mentioned airplane disaster, is Scott's equal in wonderfulness. Their scenes together sparkle with charm and amiability.

Clive Brook as the eminently eccentric and insouciant Marquis of Gleneyre is all throwaway charm.The British aristocracy has never been better represented on screen. Though not an especially intelligent man, he is, nonetheless, a likable old coot filled with an unselfconscious joy of privileged living.

If not for these actors and a nice bit by John Merivale as Adrian Messenger, the movie would be unwatchable. Dana Wynter as Lady Jocelyn Bruttenholm is okay too, though she really doesn't have much to do.

John Merivale as Adrian Messenger.

But it's because of George, Jacques and Clive that I never get tired of watching (when I get a chance) THE LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER. I definitely have to look around for a nice inexpensive copy.

Here's the gist of the story:

Adrian Messenger is a British writer at work on a current book requiring a certain amount of research. At the country estate of the Marquis of Gleneyer, he asks family friend Anthony Gethryn to check on a list of names he's been working on. They will meet and discuss the list upon Messenger's return from overseas. He is on his way to Montreal for further research.

When Messenger's plane blows up over the Atlantic, his body is found floating barely alive, by fellow passenger Raoul Le Borg. Before he dies, Messenger mumbles some non-sensical words which Le Borg will later repeat to Gethryn when he is interviewed at the hospital. Gethryn suspects that the explosion which brought the plane down was meant to kill Messenger and unfortunately the other passengers were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

After Le Borg recovers from his injuries, he and Gethryn decide to work together to solve what looks to be an incredible series of ruthless yet haphazard murders - murder on a grand scale. (It turns out that Le Borg and Gethryn worked together without ever having met, during the war. Le Borg as a member of the French Resistance.)

Gethryn has learned that the names on the list given him by Messenger are men who have died over several years, mostly by accident. As he and Le Borg begin to put the pieces together, they run into the disguised American actors named earlier, more bodies start piling up, including the harmless typist who'd worked on Messenger's manuscript.

All along, we are shown the disguised killer (who can't disguise that he is Kirk Douglas or another guy who looks like Kirk Douglas and did most of the grunt work) in a variety of disguises, fake noses, hair and such as he goes about his killing spree. Blech...!

How it all ends you'll have to see the movie to find out. The extraordinary motivation for the crime - the solving of it is ingenious and comes about three quarters of the way through the story. Still, the film's death at a fox hunt ending is much more exciting than the book's, despite the ridiculous make-up shenanigans.

George C. Scott, Jacques Roux, Dana Wynter and Clive Brook.


  1. I've always wanted to see this movie. I like book (ending and all)and would really love to see this (bad makeup and all).

    Thanks for highlighting it!

  2. You're welcome, Bev. :)

    It's one of my favorites despite the bad make-up.

  3. I remember seeing this movie when it originally came out (a lifetime ago), and being amazed by the ending! What you are overlooking is that the audiences of the 1950s did not have the experience of today's sophisticated makeup technology (much of which is computer animation) — it was the age of Godzilla!

  4. You may not like the disguises, but when I first saw it as a teen I loved it. (It was on some afternoon movie show on TV back in the 1970s) I was fascinated by secret agents and disguises and superhero alter egos. I ate it up. Burt Lancaster's disguise was impenetrable and I think the best of the bunch. Tell me you knew that was him. I finally found a copy of the book at an estate sale this year. I've never read it. I'm sure it's a bit different from this excellent movie. BTW - do you remember the Get Smart episode that lampooned this movie? It was called "The Mess of Adrian Listenger" about members of the CONTROL Baseball league systematically being killed off. Funny stuff.

    1. I actually DO remember this Get Smart episode: thanks for the reminder!

  5. NEWS FLASH! I went to check up that I remembered Lancaster's disguise properly and found this outrageous piece of trivia:

    "Actor Jan Merlin reportedly played several of the alleged star cameos in the movie (including Kirk Douglas and Robert Mitchum); according to Merlin, the big-name actors never appeared in the film proper and only shot close-ups for an epilogue peeling off their heavy make-up. Merlin used his experiences as the basis of a thinly-veiled novel about the filming of the movie titled Shooting Montezuma."

    Another website claims that Douglas and Mitchum were the only ones to actually wear the make-up and act in the scenes. The others picked up $75,000 for getting in to the make-up and then peeling it off.

    Supposedly Elizabeth Taylor was offered a role as a sailor, but she turned it down.

    Is this all hearsay and rumor? I'll have to read Merlin's book --if I can find it.

  6. Mark: I saw this in the theater as well at the time of its release, and I still didn't like the make-up gag.

    My point is: WHY?

    And another thing: Why does Kirk Douglas take off his make-up as he's dying? Just sayin'

  7. John: As you know I LOVED the movie anyway. So lets's agree to disagree about the make-up. I saw this in the theater when I was 18 or 19 and I loved the interaction between Scott and Roux but hated the make-up crap. But that's just me. I was a curmudgeon even as a kid.

  8. John: Now I definitely have to buy a copy of the film. For sure!! I'm going from memory but Robert Mitchum did appear - I'd almost swear to that.

    Again I ask: What was the point of all this?

    But remember, I do LOVE the movie anyway.

  9. Oops! Meant to add that I don't rermember the Get Smart episode though I probably saw it. I was a big fan of Smart.

    The only title of an episode that I still remember was the take on TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.

    The episode was titled:

    Tecquilla Mockingbird.

    Sacrilege. Ha!

  10. In one of Tom Weaver's interview books, Jan Merlin is interviewed about what should be called The HOAX of Adrian Mesenger.
    In brief, Merlin says that only Tony Curtis and Robert Mitchum actually appear in the movie proper, wearing the rubber faces.The roles supposedly played by Sinatra and Lancaster are filled by other actors in rubber, with dubbed voices. Paul Frees dubs the Sinatra character.

    As for Douglas, he only actually does one of his disguises, in addition to the washroom changeover and the big reveal at the climax. The rest of the time it's Jan Merlin - and this includes the curtain-call at the end: Douglas only appears to remove the last rubber face and say "Ladies and gentlemen, The End!"

    Which brings us to the Question, what was the point?


    Look, you're Universal-International in 1963, and you've got deals with Kirk Douglas's company and John Huston that you all want to get out of the way. The only available property is an old English whodunit novel, which Douglas agrees to take because his character is a Master of Disguise; since his face won't actually be seen, he can fob off the hard work on some lesser-known actor but still get the credit. Plus, Huston needs a hit.
    U-I goes along, but decides to up the ante: get other Big Stars to do disguise bits, thus "adding another level of mystery". Of the Big Stars, only Mitchum and Curtis actually agree to do it, Mitchum so he can show off his Cockney accent (should I have said SPOILER there?); the others get to do a peel-off at the end. The publicity plays it all up for all it's worth, everybody agrees to keep quiet, and nobody's the wiser.

    I saw Adrian Messenger in the theater when I was 12. I bought the whole Guest Star schmeer at face value, just as I was supposed to.
    Seeing it again as an adult (?), the double deception became a bit more obvious.
    But I still enjoyed it, and I guess I always will.

  11. Hi Mike, thanks for chiming in. Wow, what a mare's nest. I'm not familiar with Jan Merlin but I'll assume he knows what he's talking about. The masquerade in the film is its weakest point, so who cares who played who - it didn't work anyway.

    Kirk Douglas - disguised - was in the apartment scene with the cat when Dana Wynters is searching Messenger's apartment. He is the most easily recognizable of the actors in disguise.

    At this point, none of it really matters anymore.

    I still love the film. At least Scott, Roux and Brooks didn't phone in their parts.

    P.S. It doesn't surprise me that studios would get away with this sort of thing, then.

  12. Back then, the studios controlled the Hollywood press corps in toto.
    No Internet, no TMZ, no tabloids (as they are today).
    The product was protected at all times. If something needed to be hidden, that was all part of the package.

    The Tom Weaver interview with Jan Merlin has many photos showing him in the various makeups, including a couple that weren't used in the final film. I wish I could remember which of Weaver's ten books this is in; when I
    get home tonight I'll look it up and tell you tomorrow.

  13. Thanks, Mike.

    Ah, the good old days of Hollywood serfdom. :)

    Too bad the photos aren't online.

    I'm definitely going to buy the film just to see if I can tell what's what. :)

  14. I've never heard of this film at all - was it ever released in the UK? Curiosity value means I shall have to keep my eyes open for it ! ;-)

  15. Oh, you'd love this, Sue. Maybe Amazon could get you a copy.

  16. I've just bought my copy from play.com for £2.99 including post! Love your blog, always interesting and fun! Hope I love the film.

  17. Oh, great news, Petra. Let us know how you like it!

  18. Oops, meant to thank you Petra for the kind words. I love your blog as well - LOVE your illustrations!

  19. Yvette, I was delighted to see that I'm not the only person who remembers THE LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER! Of course, I didn't realize until many years later that Jan Merlin had really played most of the "guest stars," and much of the heavy F/X makeup seems corny now, but there was still a fine cast and an intriguing mystery underneath it all. I even remember the GET SMART episode's spoof, "The Mess of Adrian Listinger"!

    I also remember John Merivale as the ill-fated Messenger: "Broom... Brougham... clean sweep!") He also played Alan Badel's vicious yet bungling lackey Sloan in Stanley Donen's ARABESQUE! I happen to have a Laser Disc of ...MESSENGER. I think I'll dig it out and watch it again in the not-too-distant future! Thanks for the ...MESSENGER memories, Yvette! :-)

  20. You're welcome, Dorian m'dear. Glad we both like the film. All this Merlin talk comes as a real susprise to me, but then I was always a bit naive. :)

    I want to see the film again to see if I can tell what's what.

    I am definitely buying the DVD in a few days. Can't wait.

  21. As promised (albeit a day late):

    Tom Weaver's interview with Jan Merlin appears in the 10th of his 12 interview collections - whose title I have just forgotten, even as I'm typing this!

    McFarland &Co. is Weaver's longtime publisher; go to their website for details.

    I do recall that the interview originally appeared in Video Watchdog magazine, so anyone who's got a collection will be able to find it easily.

    Upon further review, I think the book is Invasion Of The Sci-Fi Filmmakers. but you really ought to get hold of all of Tom Weaver's books. They're even more fun than the movies.

  22. THanks Mike. You went beyond the call of duty. I appreciate the info. Will do some checking of my own. But I want to see the movie first.

  23. This just went on the TBS (to be seen) list.

    I have heard of it, of course, but not seen it.

    I will watch it but don't know if the seriousness of the plot will keep me interested, or if I'll fall over laughing at the actors/comic relief with the make-up on.

  24. Kathy: It's just a terrific mystery if you can get over the make-up faux pas. Ha!

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  26. I will watch it.

    Now my TBS list is getting as huge as my TBR list, with reminders of all these movie classics that I've never seen or that should be reseen.

    There's an endless supply.

  27. Hi Yvette,

    just to chime in and say that it's a great choice of a movie - the gimmick is just that, but one wouldn't want to forget the book and the author - what's amusing is the way that it fits in particularly with Philip MacDonald's other work as both a novelist and as a screenwriter.

    His early book RYNOX is all about one character masquerading as another, as is WARRANT FOR X (aka THE NURSEMAID WHO DISAPPEARED) while in X V. REX the murderer uses a variety of disguises as he goes around bumping off police officers.

    When MacDonald went to work as a screenwriter the obsession with make up and disguises appears again and again - CHARLIE CHAN IN PARIS is a particularly good example, as are any of the MR MOTO films that he scripted.

    really enjoyed reading this post Yvette - cheers.


  28. Kathy: Don't miss it. Move it to the front of the list. :)

    I'm waiting for my newly purchased dvd to come in the mail. I splurged. All this talking about the movie made me eager to see it again. :)

  29. Sergio: I've only ever read the one Philip MacDonald book. I hope to get around to reading others when I have a chance.

    I didn't realize MacDonald had written for the movies. Interesting. (Also interesting to read about his apparent disguise fetish.)

    Glad you enjoyed the post, many thanks.

  30. I've watched it now, Yvette! I can imagine at the time of release it was a 'must see' because of the 'hidden stars' gimmick. I have to say, it wasn't amongst the best films I've ever watched, but still great fun and very enjoyable.

  31. Glad you had a chance to see it, Petra.

    No, not a great film, certainly. But fun enough. :)

    If they hadn't fooled around with a gimmick and hadn't cast Kirk Douglas who is awful - it would have been a much better movie.

  32. In its day, I quite enjoyed the movie and the disguises.

  33. I saw it when it came out; I was 13 and was ASTOUNDED by the disguises - it was a much less experienced and cynical world then. I was madly in love with Scott for the following 2 weeks. LOL I did love the mystery part, and the cipher solving.

    1. Yes, the cipher solving and Scott were the best things. Followed closely by the smooth Frenchman. :) I, too fell under Scott's spell in this movie, Terry.

  34. A great review about my favourite mystery film (which I've also watched over and over - good thing you can't wear out DVDs). And I fully agree with your comments about the appalling disguises! (I read somewhere that Liz Taylor was offered a part as a sailor but declined when she found out how painful the latex make-up was to wear.)

    The only other thing that I disliked about the film was John Huston's annoying habit of dubbing in cast member's lines with his own voice in what he fondly imagined was a copy of the actor's voice. See the scene early on where the Police Commissioner reading the list of names that Scott's given him and when the shot changes to the page you hear a different voice say "killed in a lift accident four months ago". Also after Messenger has checked in for his flight instead of the check-in lady's voice you hear a different voice say "Welcome Mr Le Borg" (how she knew who he was without looking at his ticket is another unanswered question).

    Apart from the above it's a cracking good mystery movie that I never tire of!

    Also I think Scott did a quite creditable English accent btw!

    1. Thanks, Peter. I have to say, I never noticed the voice changes. But John Huston was an odd duck anyway, so nothing he did would surprise me. Ha. Next time I watch the film, I'll pay closer attention.

      Elizabeth Taylor as a sailor??? Horrors. :)

      I loved Scott as Gethryn - I only wish they'd filmed more of MacDonald's books with Scott as the star.


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