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

 

The Hospital (1971) / Network (1976)

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By Scott Ross

Don’t ask me to choose a favorite between these two outrageous panegyrics by Paddy Chayefsky. In his gifts for dark comic exaggeration and exhilarating histrionic rhetoric, the late playwright had no peer, and these talents were never more manifest than in this pair of lacerating black farces. Contemporary critics were put off by Chayefsky’s occasionally hysterical (and, it was alleged, messianic and reactionary) takes on modern medicine and the corporatization of television, but as the years go by they seem positively prescient. It’s impossible to imagine these movies, with their rich verbal acrobatics, being made today, at least in Hollywood, and it’s no accident that Chayefsky won screenplay Oscars for both.

The Hospital has so many great actors in roles large and small that its ensemble, like that of All the President’s Men, is virtually a Who’s Who of 1970s thespic artists: George C. Scott, Diana Rigg, Barnard Hughes, Nancy Marchand, Frances Sternhagen, Roberts Blossom, Lenny Baker, Robert Walden, Richard Dysart, Katherine Helmond and Stockard Channing; Hughes is so good he’s got two roles, both marvelous.

“I am the fool for Christ, and Paraclete of Caborca.”

Network’s cast is equally stellar, with William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty and Beatrice Straight firing off Chayefsky’s often achingly funny verbal eruptions in the leading roles. The number of Oscars awarded for the movie’s actors is a measure of the screenwriter’s abounding gifts: Finch, Dunaway and Straight were given statuettes (Finch posthumously), while Beatty — like Straight — was nominated for a single monologue.

“You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and YOU… WILL… ATONE!”

Finch is superb, and his angry exhortation “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” became an instant catchphrase — ironic in that this seemingly populist watch-cry is uttered by a complete madman.

But it’s Holden who keeps the whole thing together, and — as in The Wild Bunch — his great, sad, worn and lived-in countenance at this stage of his life is one of the most moving faces in the movies. Network was his last major role in an important movie, and he gave it a lifetime’s passion. Arthur Hiller, never an inspired director, did well enough by The Hospital, as he did with Chayefsky’s great, underrated The Americanization of Emily, while Sidney Lumet filmed Network like a sly documentarian, tongue firmly in cheek.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

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By Scott Ross

Otto Preminger’s legal drama, from a fine, meticulous screenplay by Wendell Mayes (far more interesting and ambiguous than the Robert Traver novel on which it was based) broke a lot of taboos in its day. For the first time in an American movie, audiences heard words like “panties” and “spermatogenesis” — spoken by Jimmy Stewart, for god’s sake! But that’s not the reason to watch, and savor, this brilliant, understated look at the underbelly of American jurisprudence.

Stewart’s “simple country lawyer” routine masks the nearly unflappable tenacity of a man who will do almost anything to win, yet never seems to be doing anything at all. Preminger and Mayes deliberately leave the movie’s ambiguous moral conundrums unresolved, which is what lingers in your mind long after the final credits have spun.

With a superlative supporting cast including Lee Remick, Ben Gazarra, Arthur O’Connell, George C. Scott, Kathryn Grant, Murray Hamilton, John Qualen, Eve Arden, and, as the presiding magistrate, Joseph N. Walsh, the lawyer who used his own faux-naif shtick to help bring down Joseph McCarthy. Duke Ellington contributed a rare—and brilliant—score; the final, terrifying notes are as ambiguous as the finale itself. (He also appears on-screen, as the piano-player Pie-Eye.)

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross