In 1963, larger-than-life-in-a-Hemingway-er-way director John Huston perpetrated a hoax on audiences far and farther. Not a huge hoax; actually more like a dirty trick. Thankfully, it was concealed inside a terrific movie.
A soft-spoken little thriller set amongst the near-royalty of the British top-most crust. After we witness a night-time murder and a name scratched from a list, we meet first Anthony Gethryn (George C. Scott), formerly of British Intelligence MI5, then unassuming writer Adrian Messenger (John Merivale). Messenger believes that a series of accidental deaths weren’t so accidental and that the men were likely murdered. He asks Gethryn to look into these seemingly unrelated events, then promptly meets his doom when his plane inexplicably (to everyone who is in the movie and not the audience) explodes. Before dying, Messenger manages to croak out a few disjointed sentences to the plane’s only survivor, Raoul Le Borg. Le Borg, as it turns out, was Gethryn’s Great War ally in the French Resistance, and he joins the former agent in his quest, now that it’s become personal. The main clue in Messenger’s utterings is the word “broom”, which Le Borg misremembers as “brush”. But who is giving the brush to whom?
Gethryn and Le Borg investigate Messenger’s list and their hunt takes them all over England, bringing them into contact with a crippled Cockney soldier (“Lost me barrel and keg [in Burma]”), a mysterious gypsy, an Italian food-cart vendor, and fox hunt protestors (“It’s the unspeakable after the uneatable!”), not to mention joining a couple of fox hunts themselves upon the Bruttenholm estate. All the while, the mysterious killer remains one step ahead of them, donning a series of disguises before revealing himself to be Kirk Douglas—er, George Brougham.
Incidentally, “Brougham” and “Bruttenholm” are both pronounced “broom”. And once we discover that old George is not only a distant heir to the Bruttenholm legacy but was also a prisoner of war in Burma with the entirety of the dead men on the list, it’s not too hard to place the rest of the pieces in the puzzle, especially when the corners are so well-defined and the size of dinner plates.
Ultimately, there’s not a lot of mystery in The List of Adrian Messenger, but there is an awful lot of fun. With Scott as our guide through the foggy underbelly of England to the magnificent grounds of the Bruttenholm estate, we meet a wonderful assortment of characters and red herrings. The opening credits boast a lot of names—Frank Sinatra, Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum—and they’re present in the film in disguises, just like Douglas’ Brougham. In the film’s post-script coda, all the disguised cameo characters unmask themselves and reveal their famous faces. And we all laugh and delight in the trickery.
To modern eyes, the made-up characters are extremely easy to spot. Douglas’ first quick-change in a rest room, slipping out sclera contacts and replacing a bald cap, is still a marvelously-staged sequence, and was likely quite a shock to ‘60s audiences. Now that every film fan is world-weary, delighting in proclaiming “that’s so fake!” at every movie’s slight-of-hand, the masquerades designed by Bud Westmore in Messenger will be unlikely to impress. But if you’re heart isn’t two-sizes too-small, you’ll let it go and just have a good time.
But here’s where Huston’s hoax really comes into play. As it turns out, his trickery was not in the disguises but the disguised. With the sole exception of Robert Mitchum playing a sinister soldier, none of the famous actors are in the movie. They’re only in the unmasking sequence! Accounts differ as to who played whom and to what extent, but character actor Dave Willock definitely doubled for Douglas during some of the lengthier disguise sequences while the rest were likely portrayed by Space Patrol’s Jan Merlin. In fact, Merlin’s novel, Shooting Montezuma, involves the making of a movie where disguise and deception plays a key role. To add insult to injury, the legendary Paul Frees provided the voices for Sinatra, Curtis and Lancaster.
In the end, Huston makes monkeys out of us all twice. It’s up to the deceived to decide if it was a low-down rotten trick or a mastery of public relations. After all, he didn’t have to pay exorbitant fees for his cameo-ees, outside of a couple hours’ worth of scratch for the masking and reveal, and he still got some glamorous mugs for the curtain call and the advertising. You can’t say that Sinatra or Lancaster aren’t in the movie, just not in the way you expect. Not a rare rug-pull then and it’s still used today. The “Famous Face on the Box” Deception.
But that doesn’t make The List of Adrian Messenger any less a joy to watch than do the visible wires attached to the actors during the climactic fox hunt. It’s all Hollywood magic trickery, from the exciting but predictable plot (based on the 1961 book by Philip MacDonald) to the bombastic acting to Scott’s amused grin permanently-affixed beneath his impressive moustache. It’s a Golden Age film for an audience growing more and more sophisticated with each release.
Now, the usual sturm and drang: The List of Adrian Messenger can only be found on the Warner Brothers Collection DVD-R-on-Demand service, unless you want to try and catch it on cable (TCM runs it frequently). It might be one movie where the remastering is to its detriment. The clarity of the wires and seams (both in terms of make-up and plot threads) are made too visible by technology.