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 whodunit 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.
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 tripartite 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