The List of Adrian Messenger, a filigreed confection directed by John Huston, starts from a basic situation similar to Kind Hearts and Coronets, but with a “serious” tone that ultimately proves more superficial that the latter’s satirical edge. Messenger is nonetheless a pleasant diversion, built on a gimmick, expressed with a wink which, once understood, adds to the pleasure of being tricked.
The story centers on the murder of several men who seem to have no relationship to each other. George C. Scott stars as Anthony Gethryn, a retired British Secret Service agent, matching wits with mass murderer George Brougham (Kirk Douglas), who is trying to hide a disreputable past. There is also a second puzzle, the question of what happened to the stars (Tony Curtis, Frank Sinatra, Robert Mitchum and Burt Lancaster) who are touted as appearing, but who seem nowhere to be found. This hide-and-seek game is central to Messenger’s enduring appeal, because the contrivances are so blatant that no one could mistake the film’s story for reality. It is that air of sweet finesse that makes it enjoyable.
If Scott seems a little young for the character, both his age and his just barely British accent work as part of the design. It is the imaginative space between the actor and Gethryn, the slight implausibility and discrepancy, that allows Scott to perform with surprising, featherweight grace. Douglas is a bit more stuck in his usual range, but it’s fun to see him playing a bad guy. Let loose from his usual heroics, he’s sharper and more inventive. He has one sudden, impish bit of business, for example, when he unexpectedly breaks out into an Indian war cry, that demonstrates humor not obvious in most of his performances.
Unlike Douglas, no one could accuse the director of playing to type. Huston had such a varied career, with such wildly diverging levels of success, that it is almost impossible to know what to expect from any of his films. Here he keeps a cool distance from the material, tongue firmly in cheek, pushing things along with discreet, unforced insistence. Executed with a kind of casual, unforced mastery, and an almost jig-like sense of play and fun, the film offers some of Huston’s simplest, wittiest work.
It shifts gears, however, when Scott and Douglas spar directly. Until that point, as Gethryn plays catch up with Brougham’s intentions, the film moves with understated urgency. Once the purpose behind the murders becomes clear, the story doesn’t have anywhere to go except to wind down to a formulaic ending. There are still two fox hunts along the road, however, and the on-going game of cat and mouse between Gethryn and Brougham, so the pace doesn’t flag. And that second mystery remains unsolved until the very end. So The List of Adrian Messenger remains a pleasantly surprising pastry right up to the last bite.