Huston’s List

AMpstr

So what drew John Huston to direct the 1963 film The List of Adrian Messenger?  Its plot—essentially an English ratiocination mystery, featuring a killer who’s a master of disguise—doesn’t seem Huston material.  The man who directed such classics as The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of The Sierra Madre, The Asphalt Jungle, The African Queen, The Misfits, Prizzi’s Honor, The Man Who Would Be King—these are films of terse, masculine action, that dig deep into human frailty and strength, and that display an ironic humor and wry compassion for humans who live at the edge of experience.  In his later films, such as Fat City, Under the Volcano, and (his final one) the lovely and elegiac The Dead, Huston shows us something else:  A reflectiveness, a quiet sympathy, for lost characters and the lost chances in life.

So a talky, static whodunit that, as described by Huston’s biographer, Axel Madsen, was basically “a gimmick picture,” and which plays out as “a charade of phonetic clues, fancy sleuthing, one fox hunt, and a lot of loose ends”…somehow that doesn’t quite fit into the Huston oeuvre.

Huston seemed to enter a rough patch in the 1950s, after the excellent The Asphalt Jungle and the great The African Queen.  He made flops (The Roots of Heaven), interesting failures (Moby Dick, Freud, Reflections in a Golden Eye), and just plain embarrassments (The Barbarian and the Geisha, The Bible: In the Beginning).  There were also the cult classics (Beat the Devil) and clunkers (The Unforgiven).  Not until The Man Who Would Be King did he roar back to form, giving us a rousing movie about grown-up boys on an escapade they start to take too seriously.  As an auteur, Huston, with his range of interests, is a bit hard to pin down (Director-Writer-Actor-Painter-Philosophical Muser?)  But one constant in his career was his attraction to the oddball and offbeat (Wise Blood is way out there).  So would a low-key thriller about a murderer assuming multiple disguises have lured Huston to make this film?

According to the character actor Jan Merlin (who played the ‘disguises’ in this movie), Huston directed Adrian Messenger for Universal Studios in exchange for Universal letting Huston direct a film about Montezuma (which was never made).  Per biographer Madsen, the film began with Kirk Douglas purchasing the rights to Philip MacDonald’s same-titled novel, on which Huston then ‘imposed’ his own screenwriter Anthony Veiller (who had worked with Huston on Beat the Devil and later on The Night of the Iguana), and who, I’m thinking, might have skewed the screenplay towards what Huston wanted.  In his own autobiography, Douglas wrote he thought the film would be a commercial success because of its marketed gimmick:  Big stars (Tony Curtis, Robert Mitchum, Burt Lancaster, Frank Sinatra) appearing in heavily disguised cameos, a guessing game for audiences.  Douglas grumbled that Huston “never really felt the spirt of [the film],” and “slough[ed] it off,” though the director did persuade producers to film part of it in on his Irish estate.  Douglas added, with unexpected modesty, “I also played my role in disguise, a minor part.”

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Well, that’s where the film snags.  It snags in several places, actually; not only on its disguise gimmick but on its casting.  In the novel, MacDonald’s killer is on a quest to ascend to an aristocratic British title by disposing of its young, direct-descent heir.  But first he must eliminate several former war comrades he betrayed to the enemy during a secret WW2 mission (hence the “List”) who could expose his perfidy.  For each killing he assumes a new name and character, to be discarded when the task is done.  But in his disguises, the killer doesn’t use heavy swaths of makeup as in the film.  It’s more a…spiritual change.  Aside from superficial adjustments in hair or clothing, the villain is a chameleon—a nobody who can be anybody, a sociopath without a core, a soulless creep lacking a real Self—who slips in and out of identities with the ease of a cockroach through floor cracks.

I should add, regarding biographer Madsen’s above description of the film, that no fox-hunting scenes (beyond a brief reference) or Irish locations appear in the novel.

But the filmmakers got all excited with their big, dumb idea of slathering its above-named guest stars (the film’s own “list”) with extravagant layers of latex, wigs, and fake noses, to keep audiences guessing who’s who.  The stars are even paraded out in an epilogue for a big ‘reveal,’ each actor peeling off his mask to grin naughtily at the camera, as if he’s just pulled his face out of the cookie jar in which he was caught.  There’s no point to the gimmick (most of the deaths happen offscreen anyway), and it distracts from the mystery and pursuit.  You ultimately find yourself not caring because the film doesn’t care—it’s so snarled up in its gimmickry, the mystery becomes secondary, merely an armature for Kirk’s movie-star buddies to do Kirk a favor by helping him make lotsa money (although per Kirk’s memoirs, it didn’t work out that way…).

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The other big snag is Mr. Douglas, cast (by himself?) as the mastermind criminal.  I’m revealing no spoiler here; the film uncovers him (literally) early on, as you watch him pull a coat of rubber off his pan.  As an actor, Douglas is no chameleon; he’s blatantly Kirk Douglas.  No doubt, as he bulges his eyes and twists his mouth into a rictus grin, he thinks he’s acting, but he’s still Kirk Douglas, patented, stamped, and packaged as such.  You can’t believe him as a disguise-making expert; something in the thrusting, aggressive Douglas personality—that wolf’s head smirk, those blazing eyeballs, and that constant, unsubtle demand to be the Big Noise in the room—makes him the least likely person who would care to hide his light under hair extensions and a collodion chin.

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The movie’s dirty little secret was that Douglas, as well as his fellow guest stars, for the most part did none of their ballyhooed cameos or disguises.  As detailed in an interview with Tom Weaver, Jan Merlin not only appeared in the film dressed up in most of the disguises, he also did all the mask testing, a laborious process that took nearly a year.  Douglas did only two short scenes in a mask; all the other scenes of his character in disguise are performed by Merlin.  In the film’s latter part Douglas even drops the disguises (not in the novel), so we can see he’s the star, no guessing involved.  Lancaster and Sinatra only appeared in the epilogue to unmask themselves (for a $75K paycheck each), though Curtis and Mitchum at least performed their own cameos (Mitchum’s role, as a war veteran faking his injury, is more than a cameo, and he’s pretty good).  Merlin, who never got to discuss his role with either Douglas or Huston, later viewed the film, somewhat bitterly, as a “professional mistake.”  Although he had the satisfaction of writing a roman à clef novel (Shooting Montezuma) about his experiences on it.

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As for the film itself…There’s something about it that does not engage.  Which you wouldn’t say about even middling Huston; there’s always something that’ll grab you, even if it’s Lillian Gish banging away at a piana amid an Indian battle.  I don’t think Huston was ‘sloughing off,’ as Douglas claimed.  His shots are beautifully, even trickily composed, such as the discovery of a victim’s body being reflected in a mirror.  But their effects, with deep focus and odd angles (one shot foregrounding a giant closeup of Mitchum’s knees), seem for display only.  And why was the very American George C. Scott cast as the English detective?  Scott tries for the accent, the mannerisms, the mood, but he’s not convincing; and he looks uncomfortable, as if hoping someone will yell ‘Cut.’  Only elderly Clive Brook (in his last film), as an elderly, all-bluff-and-British aristocrat, knows what he’s doing or who he is.  What a charmer—whenever Brook’s onscreen, he’s so thoroughly at home, it’s like we’re lounging in his drawing room, waiting for the butler to bring tea.

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So why did Huston do the damn film?  Other than money, boredom, an interest in gimmickry, or as a bargaining chip to make another movie?

My guess as to what drew Huston to Adrian Messenger was that it gave him an opportunity to film a fox hunt.  And to film it extensively (there are two long fox-hunting scenes in the movie).  I think Huston was quirky enough to do that.  He made the film when living at St. Clerens, his Irish estate, where he was an enthusiastic fox hunter, eventually becoming a Master of Fox Hounds.  And now he had a chance to film hunt scenes by having his scenarist pounce on that one bit from the novel and weave it into the movie, using his own property as a set and several of his titled neighbors as riders.  Huston himself performs a cameo, as a Lord Somebody-or-Other (without disguise).  Decked out in traditional fox-hunt short jacket and top hat, he snaps irascibly at the film’s fictional MFH about what’s causing a delay in the proceedings.  Something I imagine Huston as director might have done.

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And it’s in the fox hunt scenes that the film comes startlingly to life.  It now moves; the scenes are exciting and beautiful to watch (if one can forget their end goal…).  Huston shoots them in wide angle and gorgeous natural light, the sun gilding the landscape in a white sheen.  Their quick, pulsing energy—horses race across grass and sail over jumps, riders lean over long, stretched necks, urging their mounts, dogs spread out in long, straggling lines—gets at something essential, in the beauty of animals in motion, in the freedom of nature and space.  There’s a transcendence in how the horses soar, in great, swift arcs (Huston obviously admired the beasts), and how their riders sit lightly, in confident control.  The cinematographer Joe MacDonald captures a visceral feel of Irish countryside, its loamy earth and crumbly stone walls; and the editing captures the hunt’s breathless rhythm, jumping between long and mid-shots and even shots from below a leaping horse.  You feel that Huston’s heart is here, that he’s happily broken loose from that stodgy little film and can now indulge in the sheer, wanton joy of movement and speed.

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I wonder if Huston at this point had, temporarily, lost interest in movies—if, for a time, he wanted to be an Irish squire instead.  He wrote in his autobiography that the ten years or so he lived at St. Clerans were among the best of his life.  Huston mentions Adrian Messenger only once in his memoirs, and only to note his filming its fox hunt with his (then-young) son, Tony.  This mention comes after long, reminiscing passages of his hunting life in Ireland, with recollections (a kind of ‘list,’ if you will) of memorable horses (“I’ve had four great hunters in my lifetime…”), riding techniques (“I always rode with a snaffle, never with a double rein…”), and spectacular jumps (“I remember a jump [a horse] once made over a very narrow gate with wire on top…”).  The squire’s life, as Huston envisioned it, of horses, hunts, and hounds, had a profound meaning for him—as a life of heightened grace, drama, and energy, with himself in the role of a gentleman of action and elegance.  Very much the quality of his own best films.

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Did Huston ever get over his love affair with Ireland (where his last film took place)—with its wide, green spaces, its rugged traditions of the chase, its beautiful equines?  He even offered some trenchant advice on dealing with difficult horses:  “If you have a problem animal, put him into the company of a bunch of little girls who like horses.  They’ll accomplish miracles.  Pretty soon they’ll be sliding down his neck, walking around under his belly, and climbing all over him.  And he’ll let them…” because “for most horses, little girls are the greatest trainers in the world.”

You can almost hear Huston add, in that deep, slow drawl of his, an amused twinkle in his eyes—Thank heaven for little girls.

AMJH


Bonus Clip:  Burt Lancaster makes a bet with YOU, the viewer, that you (meaning YOU) won’t be able to guess who’s under the goo, in the trailer for The List of Adrian Messenger:

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4 Comments

  1. armando saez

     /  December 18, 2021

    I like the films “The Red Badge of Courage”51 and his “Moulin Rouge” 52.

    Reply
  2. Brett Piper

     /  December 27, 2021

    Great post, and pretty much on the money (especially about what an annoying distraction the make-up gimmick is, along with the intrusive Paul Frees dubbings). I differ mainly in that I genuinely like the film. It’s a very good filmic example of what you called the “English ratiocination mystery” and a big improvement on the novel. Then again, I also really like THE BARBARIAN AND THE GEISHA.

    Reply
    • I confess, I haven’t seen Barbarian and the Geisha (though I am VERY curious to do so!). You’re right about Messenger’s annoying make-up gimmick–apparently the producers (which I think meant Kirk Douglas, who bought the rights) thought it would be a box-office draw, but it didn’t work out. I read the novel, which wasn’t bad, as far as thriller novels go; but I think the film’s ending with the fox hunt was a better idea. It worked in with its general atmosphere, and was beautifully filmed. Huston did have a curious directing career, in that his film choices seemed all over the place. Which does attest to his willingness to try out new things and to a broad curiosity about life and characters, though I have a sense he would sometimes lose interest making a film and just go through the paces. But he was an extraordinarily interesting artist and man.

      Reply

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