J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

John Huston at UCLA: The List of Adrian Messenger

Think of it as the inverse opposite of Robert Altman’s The Player. The gimmick for this larky noir was the unrecognizable presence of some of Hollywood’s biggest stars playing minor roles under heavy make-up. It is the sort of in-joke that would appeal to its legendary director, John Huston. Best of all, the Hemingwayesque auteur had the chance to get in some fox-hunting during the production of The List of Adrian Messenger, which screens during the John Huston retrospective at the UCLA Film & Television Archive.

Sort of, but not really retired MI5 agent Anthony Gethryn is enjoying his new quasi-emeritus status with his friends, Lady Jocelyn Bruttenholm and her family, when her cousin, Adrian Messenger takes him into his confidence. He believes a sinister villain has been knocking off all the names on his titular list, for nefarious reasons he suspects, but does not care to reveal without proof. Tragically, before Gethryn can begin his inquiries regarding the individual names, Messenger is killed in plane bombing.

Obviously, Gethryn concludes Messenger was in fact the final name on his list of death. However, as luck would have it, there was a sole survivor of the bombing, who happened to hear Messenger’s dying words. Gethryn even knows him—at least his voice. He and Raoul Le Borg often communicated via shortwave during WWII as French Resistance and British Intelligence counterparts, so they inevitably team up to track down the killer.

Frankly, it is no secret who the killer is. It’s Kirk Douglas in various disguises. He even plays the nefarious George Brougham in his own, unaltered, cleft-jawed features. Playing against type, Douglas is an eerily charming sociopath, but his terrific villainous turn was overshadowed by the stunt cameos from Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster, Frank Sinatra, and Robert Mitchum (who really isn’t that hard to spot, possibly because he looked pretty much as he would in real life thirty years later).

George C. Scott is appealingly world-weary and cerebral as Gethryn, the spook-turned-sleuth. In fact, one of the greatest pleasures of the film is the sophisticated men-of-the-world buddy chemistry he forges with Jacques Roux’s Le Borg, who in turn develops some rather engagingly chaste romantic chemistry with the alluring yet ever so proper Lady Jocelyn, nicely played by Dana Wynter.

So yes, there is more than the gimmick to commend List to your attention. In fact, it boasts some of the best fox-hunting scenes ever shot. Old Man Huston wouldn’t settle for anything less. As it happens, those scenes were filmed in Ireland, where any subsequent remake would also probably be forced to go, due to the UK’s misconceived fox-hunting ban. As a further bonus, List also features one of Jerry Goldsmith’s best scores, which manages to be both zippy and upbeat, but somehow noirish as well. Recommended for fans of Huston’s wry capers, The List of Adrian Messenger fittingly screens with the complete restored print of Beat the Devil this coming Friday (6/30), at the Billy Wilder Theater.

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