Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Overlooked Film: The List of Adrian Messenger

This review goes out with thanks to Yvette who mentioned “The List of Adrian Messenger” in a post last week on her excellent site, In So Many Words. I commented that I saw the film long ago and did not remember much about it except the disguises and deceptions.

In thinking about the 1963 film, I realized I had not seen it since watching it on TV as a kid with my family in the living room of our old house.

A quick search turned up a very good video of the entire movie on YouTube. If anyone has not seen “The List of Adrian Messenger,” please take a look. If anyone has seen it and wants to view it again, move fast. Films like this are often taken down as quickly as they appear.

“The List of Adrian Messenger” is a John Huston film based on a Philip MacDonald novel and starring George C. Scott.

Scott is terrific, as usual, this time playing a retired British intelligence officer who is asked by a friend, Adrian Messenger, to check into the whereabouts of a group of men. The friend does not say much more about his list of names and soon cannot say another word as he is murdered by someone who is killing off everyone on the list.

The killer is seen from the beginning of the picture, but only in the disguises he uses. His identity and his reasons for knocking off these men is the mystery Scott’s character sets out to discover.

To say any more about the intricate plot would ruin the fun for anyone who has not seen the movie.

For George C. Scott, this film was his first starring role. His previous film roles were in supporting parts in “Anatomy of a Murder” and “The Hustler.” He had also appeared in many TV dramas. With this film, Scott got a chance to show he had the chops to carry a major movie. And carry it, he does. Scott dominates every scene he is in with his personal power and that fast, sharp, distinctive speech pattern and gravelly voice. He also brings an intensity and danger to this highly polished film.

“The List of Adrian Messenger” is filled with wonderful supporting players, including: Dana Wynter, Herbert Marshall, Clive Brook, Gladys Cooper, and Marcel Dalio.

In the opening credits, names of some of the biggest movie stars of the time float across the screen, but these actors are not seen in the film. Or are they? Huston, in keeping with the theme of disguises, disguised Tony Curtis, Robert Mitchum, Frank Sinatra, and Burt Lancaster so well, that only in the final moments of the movie does he reveal which parts they played. Well, at least three will be revealed. One will be quite obvious.

“The List of Adrian Messenger” is a highly enjoyable feature.

Finally, when the video started I recognized the cool, intriguing theme music by Jerry Goldsmith. As it turns out, I remembered more of this movie than I thought. So, I suppose everything we see and hear is stored away somewhere. And if we cannot immediately access it, there is always YouTube.

(For more links to movies and television, check out Todd Mason’s Sweet Freedom.)


  1. The more you talk about this film, Elgin (and thanks for the plug), the more I think I'll watch it once again tonight. I first saw this thriller in a movie theater in the long ago of yesteryear and always remembered it. I love George C. Scott in it and love the friendship between his character and the Frenchman who survived the plane crash. If not for the dumbbell move of actors in disguises (other than the murderer's) I would rate this film even higher up than I do. P.S. The book is pretty good too, though the ending is totally different and takes place in California. Yeah, go figure.

    1. Thanks for the comments, Yvette. I always enjoy Scott’s movies. And, yes, revealing the disguised movie stars was strange.

  2. Back in 2011, when Yvette wrote her original Adrian Messenger post, I sent her a few comments about the "guest star disguise" hoax which is this film's claim to posterity.

    Briefly, Kirk Douglas, who produced the picture, isn't wearing all the disguises his character has on (exceptions: the restroom changeover at the start, and the tweedy typist midway through). The rest of the time, it's an actor named Jan Merlin, who blew the whistle a few years ago in an interview with Tom Weaver, for one of the latter's books.
    Bob Mitchum and Tony Curtis are actually wearing their rubber faces.
    Frank Sinatra and Burt Lancaster aren't - at least in the movie proper (they do appear in the peel-off at the end - and likely pocketed a bundle for doing it).
    I went over all of this with Yvette back in 2011 (it's in her archives).

    Oh, and Yvette, if you should read this -
    - since you eliminated Name-URL as an option in your comment section, I can no longer comment at your site (the other options carry instructions in Technoslavian that are indecipherable to me).
    Just so you know ...

    1. Mike – Thanks for reading the post and commenting. I’ve heard about that deception. It doesn’t spoil the picture, but it does make me wonder what was going on?

    2. What was going on ...

      Briefly, in 1963 Kirk Douglas and John Huston had deals with Universal that needed to be burned off - preferably with moderately successful pictures.
      Universal had the Adrian Messenger novel in its inventory, with fox hunting in the background (Huston was an enthusiast) and a master-of-disguise villain (Douglas wanted a showy part).
      Thus are Hollywood deals made.
      But wait - there's more.
      Early in the production, Douglas decided that he didn't really want to do all the makeup grunt work. Jan Merlin was engaged to presumably test the various disguises, but wound up doing most of the on-camera stuff.
      As to the others -
      Someone in the Universal exec suite had the idea that Douglas's disguise bit could be expanded to an outright gimmick, to goose the box-office a bit for what was otherwise a second feature (at a time when such pics weren't being made that much).
      George C. Scott hadn't quite broken through at this point; he was still mostly doing TV (he went from directly from this to East Side/ West Side). Without the "guest star" gimmick, Kirk Douglas would have had to have gotten top billing, and that would have wrecked the mystery.
      As noted above, Mitchum and Curtis are both wearing their rubber faces, doing dialects and having a ball.
      Lancaster and Sinatra were brought in solely for the peel-offs at the finish; other actors played the roles under rubber faces in the movie proper. The story goes that Liz Taylor was supposed to make a peel-off herself, but balked at even doing that.

      Anyway, The List Of Adrian Messenger was a moderate hit for Universal and Kirk Douglas's company; everybody bought the guest-star gimmick at face value (Hollywood really knew how to keep a secret in those days), and a good time was had by all.
      I saw the picture at a local theater when I was 12. If I recall correctly, Messenger was playing a double bill with the feature film version of McHale's Navy, also a Universal release (I might be mistaken about this; we're talking fifty-plus years here).

      So - that's what was going on ...

  3. Elgin, cheers - I might look this one up!

  4. Thanks for the summary. I just watched it last night and had seen it when I was 15 years old in the theatre and liked it. But after watching it last night I asked myself why did the murderer kill everybody on the list? I didn't connect that it was because he was an informer during World War II a POW escape and the killer was afraid that people on the list would turning him in. I didn't pick that up in the movie last night oddly maybe I was just little too tired.