The nature of man: The List of Adrian Messenger (1963)

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MPW-110560

By Scott Ross

John Huston revered literature, but he made his best movies by adapting the second rate. He seemed never to quite understand that a great novel is not merely a good story, well-drawn characters or even memorable dialogue. Greatness in prose is a matter of style, and style, as with exceptional descriptive passages, cannot be transmogrified from one medium to another. Thus — with the single, notable exception of adapting The Dead* — when his sights were lowered, he often achieved the greatness he sought and which so often eluded him when tackling The Great Novel. (Moby Dick will do as an example.)

When I use the term “second-rate,” I imply nothing derogatory. Who, after all, relishing a good mystery, would not have been proud to have written The Maltese Falcon? Huston fared better with plays — there’s little to be ashamed of in his transliteration to the screen of Maxwell Anderson’s Key Largo, and his movie of The Night of the Iguana is, arguably, the finest of all Tennessee Williams screen adaptations — and his best literary translations are from the lower but by no means trashier rungs of literature: The mystery (Falcon could scarcely be bettered in this regard), the spy thriller (The Kremlin Letter), the action-romance (The African Queen), the Western (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), the black-comedy crime saga admittedly a fairly exclusive genre (Prizzi’s Honor) or even the imperialist boy’s own adventure (The Man Who Would Be King). While I know that it is revered by almost everyone else, I am left cold by Huston’s adaptation of The Asphalt Jungle; I much prefer his screen edition of Philip MacDonald’s The List of Adrian Messenger. As neat a little whodunnit as can be imagined, the picture also has the benefit of brevity: Its pleasures fit very comfortably within its 94 minute running-time, even if certain aspects of the narrative are, on the one hand, outré and unnecessary and, on the other, tend to stick in the craw.

Chief among the former is the movie’s disguise gimmick which, while in keeping with the m.o. of the picture’s mass-murdering villain, is not especially well carried off, despite being devised by Bud Westmore; the various false faces look exactly that: false. Further, the entire enterprise is something of a cheat, in that some of Kirk Douglas’ supposed impersonations were carried out by another actor (Jan Merlin), some of the cameos are voiced by a second (Paul Frees) and Burt Lancaster, one of the picture’s ballyhooed guest-stars (and who include Tony Curtis, Robert Mitchum and Frank Sinatra) doesn’t appear in the picture at all, until his on-screen unmasking at the end. But more troubling is what was likely Huston’s major interest in making the movie at all.

The filmmaker moved to Ireland in the 1950s, occupied a manor and became the local Master at Hounds. Gore Vidal, writing about Teddy Roosevelt’s vaunted love of the physical and his veneration of the manly art of killing, often referred to the sissy’s need to overcompensate. Huston was an equally sickly child, and one senses in his enthusiasms for bullying, womanizing, fisticuffs and the shooting down of animals (not to mention his nausea over homosexuality) a similar preoccupation. Fox-hunting played a great role in his self-imposed Irish exile, and The List of Adrian Messenger contains perhaps the most fulsome celebration of that sick-making blood-sport ever committed to film. Add to this the implicit veneration of the peerage, and it becomes difficult to overlook aspects of the picture unsettling to those of a more egalitarian or humane bent. Confronted at the start of the climactic hunt by a group of placard-waving protesters, one of whom chastises him with “What harm has the fox done to you?” the insufferable Master (Clive Brook) ripostes, “The fox and l know more of life than you do. It is man’s nature to hunt. It is the fox’s to be hunted.” Aside from its speciousness, this pompous, self-justifying statement elides one very important part of the equation: The fox is, primarily, a hunter, with few natural mortal enemies, only one of whom hunts him purely for sport. And what sport! Or is watching a pack of hounds tearing a living animal to shreds your idea of a good time too? Brook’s character earlier rails against the North American practice of “dragging” — running a scented cloth over the grounds to confuse the dogs — as “an abomination.” What he himself is pleased to perpetuate is a far greater, and far less innocent, abomination.

The List of Adrian Messenger - Douglas and Scott

Foxes and Hounds: George C. Scott lures his suspect toward a final unmasking.

These cavils to one side, The List of Adrian Messenger is, in the main, an intelligent, amusing yarn, vividly shot (apart from some embarrassing rear-screen work) in crisp, clear deep-focus black and white by Joseph MacDonald, and deliciously scored by Jerry Goldsmith, using as his motif a curious little oboe-accented march that Kurt Weill might well have composed in the 1920s. Stunt-casting aside, the movie is perfectly played by its largely splendid cast: George C. Scott, affecting a “good show, old boy” Mayfair accent; Douglas, relishing his ingenious duplicity as the killer; Jacques Roux as a charming Gallic Watson to Scott’s Sherlock Holmes; Herbert Marshall radiating veddy British stoicism as a stuffy representative of the law; and, most deliciously, Marcel Dalio and Gladys Cooper in a very funny turn as a marquess and her preening phony of a second husband. Tony Huston, the director’s unfortunate son — you’ll have to read Lawrence Grobel’s splendid tripartate biography The Hustons to understand that remark — does what I suppose is his best as a most un-British scion to the landed gentry, although the character as presented in his first scene is a perfect horror. You cringe at the sound of this pre-adolescent youth affecting Old Boy dialogue, interchangeable from that of his 80 year-old reactionary stiff of a grandfather, knowing that the peerage, like Douglas’ killer, has claimed yet another victim.

*The Red Badge of Courage has its partisans, but what we have of that was too truncated by studio hands to represent Huston’s complete vision.

 

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

 

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Peddling disaster: Wrong is Right (1982)

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By Scott Ross

Richard Brooks is one of those odd Hollywood characters auteurists  can’t pin down, and that’s irksome to them. They want consistency of vision; content is less important to them than a measurable idiosyncratic (preferably “personal”) style. And while I can see no particular pattern in Brooks’ work as a writer-director, nor an especially consistent style, I don’t mind that in the least: Sidney Lumet’s style changed from picture to picture, and he made some of the finest American movies of the last 60 years. What I think unites Lumet and Brooks is that they shared a sense that style and approach are, rightly, dictated by content and form. There’s little that unites, say, Elmer Gantry and The Professionals, or and Bite the Bullet, except that the man who made them was highly intelligent, often witty, and inevitably humane.

Wrong is Right was Brooks’ penultimate movie, and it was pretty much ignored by audiences of the time, who were moving deep into the Reagan Dream and didn’t wish to be disturbed from their sleep. Besides, after Network, who wanted to see another hyperkinetic satire on television? But, while Wrong is Right comes to many of the same conclusions as Network did, the picture is not warmed-over Chayefsky. If anything, it has more in common with the later Wag the Dog in its black-humored cynicism about the intersection of show biz and politics, and with Larry Gelbart’s late, almost despairing, conclusions (in work such as his Weapons of Mass Distraction) about the intractable mess Bill Clinton created with his disastrous Telecommunications Act of 1996, which has in the interim destroyed the entire concept of a free press, without which democracy cannot flourish, or even function. Twenty years after All the President’s Men celebrated the professional ethics of two dogged, independent Washington Post reporters, Clinton seemed intent on killing the very notion of a press independent of corporate ownership, much as Jeff Bezos has succeeded in turning that very paper into a conduit for CIA and DNC propaganda disguised as news. In the current journalistic void, where almost nothing one sees, hears or reads in the corporate media may be trusted, Wrong is Right seems positively prescient.

Brooks based his screenplay on a thriller by Charles McCarry concerning the collision of a bitter American revolutionary, a star American reporter, and the President. Transferring the revolutionary aspect to the Middle East, the filmmaker fashioned a wild, engaging satire that, if only occasionally delivering a line that makes you laugh out loud, is never less than thoroughly engaging. Brooks’ reporter here is an adventurer-turned-journalist (Sean Connery), his revolutionary an Arabian terrorist (Henry Silva, of all people) and his President (George Grizzard) a football-obsessed career politician intent on winning a close election with a Reaganesque hack (Leslie Neilsen). Added to this already heady brew is a gung-ho General called Wombat (Robert Conrad); a serpentine CIA chief (G.D. Spradlin); a ratings-mad network honcho (Robert Webber) who could quite easily be mistaken for Les Moonves giggling about how much money CBS was making from the Trump candidacy; a smart, savvy, main-chance grabbing black female Vice-President (Rosalind Cash) bearing the last name of Carter’s predecessor; a natty international arms dealer (Hardy Krüger) who, as these types tend, isn’t concerned with who gets a pair of nuclear bombs, as long as he gets the cash; and a slick, opportunistic Presidential aid (Dean Stockwell) the like of whom Aaron Sorkin would never have presented on The West Wing. (John Saxon also shows up, as a CIA agent who is the last word in sangfroid, Katherine Ross appears—all too briefly for my taste—as a journalist with a secret life, and Ron Moody contributes a neat cameo as the Mideast potentate who sets the whole, blazing ball rolling. As an added frisson for the modern viewer, a young Jennifer Jason Leigh pops up as a teenager only slightly less appalling than Leigh herself became as an adult.)

Although Wrong is Right clocks in at nearly two hours, the pace of the picture is so fast there is never the slightest opportunity for longueurs. That breakneck structure is attained largely through Brooks’ tight, economical (and rather bracingly theatrical) writing style, as a word or phrase uttered by one character leads directly to its echo in the mouth of another, sometimes continents away. Metaphorically, Brooks’ dialogue plums the rich vein usually mined by Gelbart himself; think of the ironically malaprop-spouting Colonel Flagg as the progenitor of nearly every character, and you get a sense of the keen wit and wordplay Brooks invests into what, on the surface, is the stuff of international thrillers. The look of the picture is itself almost like TV itself as it once was: The cinematographer Fred J. Koenekamp’s use of deep-focus and bright color would not have been out of place in a Universal television movie of the week. And if the infrequent use of special effects is somewhat shoddy, those moments pass quickly enough—although, in the immediate post-Star Wars era, they must have seemed pretty shoddy to those moviegoers who actually purchased a ticket.

As a taste of Brooks’ delicious dramaturgical style, here’s Connery’s Patrick Hale after he has suggested to Webber that the network obtain Hardy’s suitcase bombs and been rebuked with the accusation that he’s practicing “checkbook journalism”:

What kind of journalism was it when television paid half a million dollars for an exclusive on the Bay of Pigs? A million dollars to Nixon, to apologize coast to coast? CBS paid Haldeman, Eisenhower, and Johnson. NBC paid John Dean and Robert Kennedy’s assassin. ABC paid Lieutenant Calley, and for breakfast, served up the My Lai massacre. And what about the killer I put on television? From death row to the electric chair, fried meat on prime time. You paid $100,000 for that. Paid it to the killer! Do you call that journalism?

We’re in show business, baby. Make them laugh. Make them cry . Make them buy, by and by. We peddle disaster. Violence—it’s commercial! Blood and tears and football and cheers. Performers, superstars. Get them on, get them off. Next, next, fast, fast! We’re in the entertainment business, and there’s nothing wrong with that… if you call it that.

That no one in the business now will call it that makes Wrong is Right a movie less out of time than far ahead of it.

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross