Looking Back Friday – The List of Adrian Messenger (1963)
It is Friday people, which not only is the end of the week but is also the day of another looking back post. This week the great Jack Deth is back to wax lyrical about another film he loves…
Welcome all and sundry! Once more, I am going to take advantage of Scott’s generosity and offer my critique and insights regarding a minor classic by John Huston and featuring quite an A-List of actors in a very clever update and blend of British, “Who Dunnit?!” murder and Drawing Room mystery. To that end, allow me to introduce.
The List of Adrian Messenger: (1963)
Which begins with a sinisterly shadowy and narrow, cobbled rain shimmered street as a black Humber cab dispenses its fare outside a rather run down hotel. The silhouetted fare enters a rather run down hotel under the reflected and watchful eyes of an elder, stoic, pipe smoking Vicar. Who waits a moment. Then follows to watch a caged lift rising upward. Satisfied. The Vicar opens the returning lift’s door. Blocks with a hard covered book. Then slinks off to do some fiddling with the Junction Boxes wired to the lifts. The Vicar returns. Retrieves his book and wanders off outside as the fiddled with lift car is called up. Only to plummet down the shaft a few moments later.
The Vicar turns at the sound of the crash as sirens begin to wail. To pull out a folded sheet of paper with a list of neatly typed names. Nearly all with penciled lines through them. One name is notably unlined. Adrian Messenger. Which supplies the grist for some neatly done opening credits.
Adrian is introduced just after a fox hunt has wound down. Surrounded by kith and kin. We discover that Adrian is a writer of some note. Cousin of stunningly beautiful, widowed Lady Jocelyn Bruttenholm. Dana Wynter; who radiates subtle, subdued though flawless British aristocracy. And her a son, Derek. All of 13 years old. Played by director Huston’s son, Tony. And a terribly polite chip off his grand father, Clive Brook’s upper class block. The Marquis of Gleneyre. Patriarch of a rather palatial estate hours away from the hustle and bustle of London. That raises horses and beef and has been in familial hands for centuries.
Another guest is focused upon. General Anthony Gethryn, retired. Late of Britain’s MI-5. Whose area of expertise is codes and phonetics. Magnificently and quietly played with attendant stiff upper, mustached lip by George C. Scott. It seems that Messenger, briefly played by John Merivale has been working on the why and wherefores surrounding what looks like a string of random accidental. suspicious deaths across the UK, and Canada over more than five years.. What Messenger has needs a new perspective and a different set of eyes to look at the names of the oddly deceased.. Gethryn listens and agrees to take a look and trade notes with Messenger upon the latter’s return from America in a fortnight.
Which sets up the next vignette. With a suitcase being weighed at the ticket counter at a London airport. The suitcase is over weight and belongs to the Vicar, who has a ticket on the same flight to America via Montreal as Messenger. Surprisingly, Messenger offers to split the difference with his suitcase which is under weight. The Vicar agrees and toddles off to the bathroom. To reveal himself as Kirk Douglas, then exit sometime later in the guise of a balding, prim and proper civil servant. Furled umbrella and all. Blissfully ignorant of the airport’s P.A. system asking the Vicar to return to Immigration. The Boeing 707 airliner is seen taking off with the Vicar’s suitcase in the belly of the aircraft. Which moments later explodes and crashes,Titanic like, into the North Sea. Leaving only two survivors. One spread out atop a floating wooden crate while hanging onto the slowly dying Messenger. Who rambles on with his last breaths about “George, photographs, Emma’s, brushes and clean sweeps.”
The sole survivor is rescued as an investigation begins at Scotland Yard. Genera Gethryn is in attendance to kibbitz. Since he’s known Lady Jocelyn since she was a child and desires to flex his Hercule Poiroit-like mind to help unravel the mystery. Curiosity piqued by the sole survivor mentioning he’d smelled Cordite after the airliner crashed. He hands over the list of names Messenger had given him to the Yard’s Chief Inspector. Discussions are had. Orders are given to nose around discreetly as Gethryn heads off to interview the survivor in a nearby hospital.
The survivor, Raoul Le Borg. Played with rakish, Charles Boyer style and charm by Jacques Roux had been busy in the French Resistance during the war and knows something of Cordite. Its exploded odor and myriad uses in blowing up railroad tracks, switching yards, ammo dumps and the like as ‘Ajax’. Executing short wave and Morse Code orders from Gethryn’s ‘Polidor’. The two reminisce with Lady Jocelyn in attendance and is shocked when Gethryn explains that Messenger was murdered. Then Gethryn asks Le Borg to try to remember exactly what Messenger said to him before dying. Gethryn takes notes as the attendant nurse announces that visiting time is over.
Gethryn then goes to work trying to decipher what Messenger has said. Suddenly aided by Le Borg, who decides to go AWOL and join the hunt. Gethryn has a plan and puts Le Borg back in the sea as the two find flaws or deeper meaning in Messenger’s words. Two are. One that helps to form a sentence. Another that changes ‘Emma’s’ to ‘MS, or ‘Manuscript’. Which works quite well since Messenger was a writer. Gethryn and Le Borg head off to Messenger’s empty flat, but Lady Jocelyn gets there ahead of them. Only to discover the prim, proper civil servant, Mr. Pithian. Who had just finished playing with Messenger’s manuscript. Mr. Pithian tells Lady Jocelyn that he lives in the flat beneath and came in to check in on and feed Messenger’s tabby cat. Pithian excuses himself and manages a getaway by in the taxi that has just disgorged Gethryn and Le Borg.
Lady Jocelyn invites Gethryn and Le Borg in as Gethryn quickly goes over the photos looking for ‘George’, who’s not to be found. Closer examination of the manuscript reveals that at least three pages have been re-written. With errors in punctuation and spacing. While this is going on, Pithian goes to the typist’s and presses the door’s buzzer. Gethryn, Le Borg and Lady Jocelyn arrive an hour later to find the typist, Miss Gwendolynne La Doll dead. Due to an open gas line inside her flat.
The net is starting to close as Scotland Yard reports to Gethryn. One name is left. James Slattery, who lives in Greenwich. Slattery is a piece of work with secrets to hide. Large, bullying and in a wheel chair. Slattery blusters his way through life. Expecting pity for his situation is a tall order when played by Robert Mitchum. Who’s loud mouthed and drinks to much and is not who or what he appears to be. Having taken on the identity of his disabled, dead brother, Joe. To collect his monthly stipend from the Ministry of Defense.Is it any wonder that James is quickly dispatched and dumped, wheel chair and all in the Thames?
At least now, Gethryn and Le Borg have a common denominator. Burma. Specifically a POW camp, Where one of its inmates, a Canadian, exchanged information for tobacco and better treatment. Causing the deaths of several prisoners by betraying them before an escape attempt. A Canadian sergeant named George Brougham (pronounced ‘Broom’). The family name for Bruttenholm. It all falls into place. The Marquis of Gleneyre is pushing 80 and may soon die through natural causes.
Lady Jocelyn’s husband died in the Korean war. The intended target all along has been young Derek. Who has suddenly received a splendid four year old Gypsy trained mare named ‘Avatar’ who starts and stops to Gypsy commands. A gift from Messenger a year and a day ago.
Lo, and behold the weekend arrives and there is a fox hunt. Full blown with men in jackets, jodphurs, top hats, the Marquis as the Hunt Master, about sixty Gleneyre hounds and a splendidly dressed and turned out George Brougham ready to crash the party. The fox is released. The hounds follow shortly thereafter with the huntsmen close behind. The fox gives a merry chase over hill and dale as Brougham gets ahead of the pack to find the hounds who’ve trapped the fox. The tail goes to Brougham. One heck of an introduction into the Bruttenholm family and its business discussed over dinner and brandy and cigars afterwards. Brougham is all smooth charm throughout. Even taking a few moments to play a duet opposite Lady Jocelyn on open baby grand pianos. Much to the chagrin of Le Borg. The following morning Brougham is headed for a walk when called aside by Gethryn. Who basically lays out all of accrued evidence to Brougham in order to make himself a target. Something Brougham is more than willing to do by snaring a fox. Putting it in a burlap sack to create a scent ‘drag’ over fields and fences to a spot where Brougham places a multi disked and wickedly tined hay rake. An uniquely frightening weapon of destruction hidden behind a relatively low, wide stone fence. Brougham then creates an alibi by calling Gleneyre to have Brougham in London during the next day’s fox hunt.
The next day’s hunt begins with a slightly larger crown than the previous hunt. Front and center is a rather tall, stout woman from the British variant of the SPCA. There to protest the hunt and worth of more than passing attention as the hunters ride off and the fox is released. The hunters follow the hounds who follow the dragged scent. The onlookers, protestors and field hands follow the hunters to a spot just before the fence where everyone congregates to hear that a ‘drag’ has been used. An abomination to the spirit of the hunt and Gleneyre, sayeth John Huston in a brief cameo. As Gethryn calls for the hound keeper and the lead hound to find the culprit.
The hound goes from spectator to protestor to a properly attired pheasant hunter. To wind up at the feet of a rather seedy, bearded field worker. Who pushes Derek out of the way. Mounts Avatar and tries to jump the stone fence. Only to have the horse stop in mid leap as Derek shouts the Gypsy command. A scream is heard. The crowd gathers as the field worker slowly peels off his rubber face to reveal George Brougham.
What Makes This Film Good?
John Huston creates an meticulously detailed and moody period piece that has the look, feel and atmosphere of countless Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films. Foggy London rain slicked streets and all. Were it not for the Boeing 707 taking off early in the film. It could easily be mistaken for the late, post war 1940s. The dialogue supplied by Anthony Veiller’s screenplay taken from Philip MacDonald’s novel of the same name is succinct, distinct and delivered with a proper stiff upper lip and dry British wit as more and more is unveiled in the mystery.
Sets are lavish in the extreme when depicting Gleneyre. Courtesy of Oliver Emert. Showing the vast expanse and faded splendor between the classes. Especially when the film focuses on James Slattery and the scenes around Greenwich. Its fog is dense beyond razor sharp shadowed alley ways masking ominous, foreboding piers and wharves. And when shadows cast along the hall as Gethryn and Le Borg approach the flat door of the deceased Miss La Doll. Only to be topped by Huston’s clever, long standing use of mirrors comes into play when they discover her body.
Costuming is superb. Covering all the bases from opulent with the principles to down right shabby when called for. Most notably George C. Scott’s impeccable attire at any given moment. Offset by Lady Jocelyn’s expensive, exquisite gowns and skirted ensembles. The soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith is kept to a minimum when dialogue abounds and works extremely well in action scenes during the hunts and when Le Borg tries to remember Messenger’s dying words.
What Makes This Film Great?
George C. Scott testing out his theater chops in a film that very closely resembles a multi act, full dress play. Aided by solid character across from across the pond. Augmented by a passel of A-List talent. Tony Curtis, Frank Sinatra, Robert Mitchum and the multi disguised Kirk Douglas.
All hiding under heavy make-up, masks and assorted appliances designed by legendary Bud Westmore and executed by John Chambers, David Grayson. Nick Marcellino. With hair styles by Larry Germain.
Half the fun in this film is trying to figure out who’s who. A task made more difficult by expert dubbing in some instances. Though Mitchum is easiest to find. And Burt Lancaster, the most humorous!
About The Author – Scott Lawlor
Chief Editor of FRC. A self confessed geek with an unhealthy thirst for all things Home Cinema. Whether it is the latest Action film or Subwoofer.
Have you seen this film? Do you agree with Jack? Comment below and let us know your thoughts…