Friday, 5 April 2013

Friday Night Film: The List of Adrian Messenger

John Huston's The List of Adrian Messenger was sold with a gimmick William Castle could never have afforded: hidden amongst its cast are five of the biggest Hollywood stars of the day (Tony Curtis, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum and Frank Sinatra), all disguised under heavy makeup. Can the audience spot them?

This little game's worked into a mystery plot that's thoroughly bog-standard.  Made by Americans and based on a novel by one (Philip MacDonald), the film's set in a fantasy England where everyone's either landed gentry, picturesque low-life, or police.  Adrian Messenger (John Merivale) belongs to the first group: he's the heir to the Marquis of Gleneyre.  Leaving the country, he hands a list of names to an old friend, retired MI5 agent Anthony Gethryn (George C Scott, whose accent's somewhere between Claude Rains and James Mason) with a request that he check on the addresses of the ten men on it.

George  Scott, looking terribly English

When Messenger's plane explodes over the sea, he's able to gasp out a few cryptic words before expiring, and these find their way back to Gethryn.  Eventually he's able to work out that the men on the list are former army comrades of Messenger's, who have been bumped off by a mysterious killer with a talent for disguise.  What's the murderer after? Could it be the fortune of the Bruttenholms of Gleneyre?(It's pronounced "Broom", those loony limeys).

As well as big names of the day, the cast includes three long-established members of Hollywood's British Raj: Clive Brook and Herbert Marshall, both looking very different from in their 30s heyday as leading men for the likes of Bette Davis and Marlene Dietrich, and the waspish Gladys Cooper, who gives us perhaps the most remarkable pronunciation of the word "Swiss" in cinema history.



Cooper (and matching poodle)

The movie's leading lady is the beautiful Dana Wynter, star of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

The director himself has a brief cameo on horseback in the film's climactic fox hunting scene, filmed in his beloved Ireland (his young son Tony's also in the cast).

The disguised stars are instantly noticeable, their bizarre makeup giving a Rondo Hatton-like quality to each one's appearance (it's still more convincing than the prosthetics used in recent Hollywood pretentiorama Cloud Atlas, though).  It's not so easy to work out who's who, though - except in the case of Douglas, whose distinctive nose and chin prove impossible to hide.  Slightly odd, then, that Douglas is cast as the film's master-of-disguise antagonist (Mitchum, as a ne'er-do-well Cockney with a surprisingly convincing accent, is the only other one of the five stars who gets a decent-sized part).  There's a queasy, fetishistic quality to the scene where we see Douglas swap characters, the camera showing us the disembodied latex features and lovingly detailing the dismantling of his face.

Ear, eye nose you

My favourite thing about the film is its use of big-conked, prodigiously bearded Irish character actor Noel Purcell (a staple in British comedy films of the era) as a decoy: at the film's climax we're led to believe he could be a disguised Douglas.  After all, who could really look like this?

After Douglas's character meets his fate, the actor's cheery voice pipes up on the soundtrack: "That's the end of the picture... but it's not the end of the mystery!" There follows a truly surreal sequence with our mystery players pulling off their faces in turn, their broad grins as they do so (except for Mitchum, who really looks like he found the latex a genuine ordeal) just making the removal of skin and teeth seem even more gruesome.  The residue left behind on their real faces is particularly horrific.  If you don't want the surprise spoiled, look away now.

"And that's the end!"

1 comment: