Friday, November 12, 2021

Listing the Deceptions in “Adrian Messenger”


The List of Adrian Messenger, directed by John Huston in 1963, begins with a joke on the audience. We just don’t know, until the film is practically over, where it’s going. The film begins in classic thriller style, with a mysterious old man casing an ornate bank building that is closed for the night. Slipping inside the darkened lobby, he manipulates some levers, and an elevator comes crashing down. Someone, we gather, has just plunged to his death. Whereupon the old man slips out into the darkness and disappears.

 When the main titles come up, we’re surprised to see (against a swirling backdrop of distinctive faces) the names of some of the biggest male Hollywood stars of the mid-century: Tony Curtis, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum,  Frank Sinatra. Then there’s another card: Starring George C. Scott. Say what? As we launch into a classic whodunit in which Scott (using an unconvincing British accent) investigates his friend’s death after a mysterious plane crash, the movie seems to be all about unearthing a revenge plot that may date back to the Burma campaign in World War II. But of course for the viewer the real mystery is this: when are those famous movie stars going to make an appearance?

 This was the era when Hollywood studios were desperately looking for ways to counteract the rising popularity of television. One idea was to dazzle potential moviegoers with spectacle; another was to give glimpses of major celebrities, the sort who wouldn’t be caught dead appearing on TV. I well remember the brouhaha surrounding the 1956 release of Around the World in Eighty Days, a blockbuster that was named Best Picture at the Oscars but is virtually unwatchable today. (I saw it at the Carthay Circle, an ornate movie palace that – alas – has long since been replaced by an office building. There were fancy theatre programs in the lobby, and even a special curtain designed to show off in comic fashion the movie’s various thrills.) This elaborate telling of the classic Jules Verne adventure tale, with David Niven in the leading role and a young Shirley MacLaine as the Indian (!) lovely he rescues, was not considered enticing enough to lure Fifties audiences. Instead, the film is crammed with 48 celebrity cameos – hey look! There’s Sinatra at the piano in that saloon!  And Marlene Dietrich at a table!

 Buoyed by the film’s success, other movies reached for the same gimmick. I remember something called Pepe, starring the Mexican comic Cantinflas, who’d been introduced to the English-speaking world as Phileas Fogg’s sidekick in Around the World in Eighty Days. In Pepe (1960) he journeys to Hollywood to retrieve a beloved horse, giving him the opportunity to hobnob humorously with legendary movie stars. And How the West Was Won (1962) used three directors, heaps of stars, and wide-screen technology to tell a vast frontier tale.  But The List of Adrian Messenger is different in that its famous faces are hidden behind elaborate makeup, only to be unmasked just before the final fadeout. Major kudos to Bud Westmore of the long-lived  Hollywood family for his false-face designs.

 To my disappointment, I’ve learned that the disguised cameos—much touted in the media upon the film’s release—were in some cases total fakes. Yes, we see the celebrities remove their phony faces at the end, but that’s not really Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster fooling the audience with facial prosthetics and exotic accents. Actor Jan Merlin, a latter-day Roger Corman alumnus, apparently stood in for Kirk Douglas in some of his disguises.

 Yes, the laugh’s on us.


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