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

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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.

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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

 

That sinking feeling: Waiting for the epithet (Or, “Frickin’ Faggot!”)

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By Scott Ross

In my 1930s Hollywood play The Dogs of Foo, the character Paul Lehrmann, based slightly on George Cukor, confronts his leading actress on the set of the movie they’re shooting. She’s just ordered Paul’s young assistant, whom she suspects, quite accurately, is also his lover, to carry a note for her. Paul steps in, reminding his star that “Johnny takes orders from me, Lita, not from you.”

“And what else does he take from you?” She snaps back. “Dick-tation?”

PAUL: Sooner or later, it always comes out, doesn’t it?

LITA: Paulie—

PAUL: Who needs vino for veritas?

LITA: I didn’t mean it, Paulie. I’m upset, I’m sorry.

PAUL: They always are—after they’ve said it. Never before, never during, but always, always after.

If you, as they say when pussyfooting, happen to be gay, much of your entertainment life is spent waiting for that insidious other shoe to drop. Especially if, as I do, you enjoy reading old novels and perusing old movies.

(For the purposes of this essay, let us define “old” not as a month or two ago, or however long it now takes the average American to forget, or lose interest, in, anything, but as from, say, the early 1980s backward. Although as late as 2003, in The Frumious Bandersnatch, Ed McBain rather gratuitously, and falsely, has a young singer think the phrase “Frickin’ faggot” toward her music-video dance partner when, asked by her how she looks in her fantasy get-up, has the faggoty effrontery to reply, “Hot!”)

No matter how sterling the qualities of the people involved, or how identifiably “liberal” they may be, sooner or later the reader or viewer of an older novel or movie written or directed by someone he or she admires is going to be hit with one of the many lurking epithets. Faggot. Queer. Sissy. Nance. Or, in the 1956 Ed McBain 87th Precinct installment The Mugger I began reading as I was pondering this very subject, “pansy.” (“Faggot” shows up a few pages later. Why? Because the eponymous felon has the odd habit, after assaulting and robbing his female victims, of bowing from the waist and saying, “Clifford thanks you, madam.” It isn’t merely the strangeness of this post-violation ritual that elicits so much speculation concerning his sexuality but his very name. Clifford. Faggoty, right? A real man would presumably call himself “Cliff.”)

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Sometimes it isn’t the words themselves that you anticipate with dread but the characters, usually, although not always, peripheral. Yesterday afternoon I watched, with a good friend, the 1965 movie of Edward Lewis’ The Pawnbroker. We were both somewhat flabbergasted by the unspoken allusions to queerdom in the film, and the inescapable sense we both had of a strange, coded homophobia in the undercurrent. First: The character of Rodriguez, the studiedly elegant gangster for whom Rod Steiger’s Shoah-haunted broker, Sol Nazerman, acts as a money-launderer. (Although he bears a Latin surname, the character is played by the unmistakably, and I think beautifully, African-looking Brock Peters. But let that pass…) In Rodriguez’s first on-screen appearance, we see him waited upon by a young blond man. At the climax of his second, a pivotal scene in which he cajoles, threatens and humiliates Nazerman the young white man again appears and climbs the staircase of Rodriguez’ large and well-appointed apartment. Rodriguez trails him up the steps, in what to our rather dazed eyes could only be an indication that the pair is ascending to the bedroom.

Second: The aging, heavily-set and curiously undulating dancer at the club Nazerman’s assistant (Jaime Sánchez) goes to with his black girlfriend (Thelma Oliver) and who is revealed at the end of her set to be a drag-queen. Third: Among the many Harlem regulars who appear in Nazerman’s shop hoping to barter furnishings and personal items to make their untenable present just a jot less desperate is a man of indeterminate age (he might be anywhere from 30 to 50) who brings in, first, an award he won from a field of (he says) 22,000 entrants and, later, a pair of bronzed baby shoes we can only assume are his own. Although neither this character nor the un-credited actor who plays him exactly screams “Fag!” I suspect it would take a veritable social hermit to miss the implications. And at least, unlike Rodriguez, this sad, defeated specimen of lower-depths humanity is not a threat, and in his touching hopefulness at the prospect of digging out yet one small turnip from a diminishing store to sustain his otherwise hopeless existence, he is no different from the lonely, intellectual and prating elderly gentleman played the great Juano Hernandez who comes to Nazerman’s pawnshop less to scare up a few pfennigs than to connect, however tenuously, with another human being. Or, indeed from any of Sol’s downtrodden regulars.

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Which brings us to the fourth, and by far most disturbing, example of the seamy homo underground of The Pawnbroker. Sánchez decides to kick over Nazerman’s safe and enlists the aid of an old associate (Raymond St. Jacques.) The night before the theft we are given a glimpse of St. Jacques’ hoodlum pal, played by the instantly identifiable, flat-nosed Charles Dierkop, playing with his pistol while thumbing through what in those antediluvian days, and to avoid legal entanglements with the U.S. Postal Service, were called “male physique” magazines. Did I mention he’s holding an obvious penis substitute, in this case a harmonica, in his mouth?

What was Lumet thinking? What, if these elements also make a showing in the novel, was Lewis? What the hell was everyone on???

Anent The Pawnbroker: Both St. Jacques and Peters were themselves gay. (Although St. Jacques, notably closeted and ultimately a victim of AIDS, legally adopted his younger lover.) One wonders how they felt about all this. Especially as, at that time, being both black and actors was more than marginalization enough for one lifetime.

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Last winter I undertook a novel I’d long avoided, by one of the favorite writers of my youth: WIlliam Goldman’s Boys and Girls Together. While the author, interestingly, depicts only two heterosexual relationships among his quartet of main characters, and while none of these liaisons can in any reasonable way be called ideal (and while none of the boys or girls a model of probity or psychic wellness) it is to the novel’s gay characters that the worst degradation accrues. In the preface to a recent reissue, Goldman admitted he’d done badly by them. But short of wholesale revision of the kind no author would wish to undertake, and certainly not in his 70s, I don’t see how even a writer of Goldman’s imagination could undo the damage. I  do know I could have lived the rest of my life happily without reading that final chapter about Aaron. As it is, I doubt now I’ll ever be able to block out its deeply unpleasant memory.

Goldman is interesting in that his subsequent book on the Broadway scene, The Season, constitutes one of the few important cases of the time (1968) of a heterosexual writer seriously considering the case of gay playwrights, the subterfuge they felt it necessary to indulge in at least as far as their work was concerned, and the prevailing pop culture of what Goldman would not have known to call heterosexism that surrounded them. Goldman’s was one of the rare calls for openness in that period, so I’m not singling him out for approbation. But for a man who (with his gifted brother James) was a one-time musical theatre librettist and a long-time Hollywood fixture and who, presumably, both knew and worked with any number of homosexual men to get an entire book of queer characters so wrong is telling.

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It can be a relief of nearly cataclysmic proportions when, in the middle of a popular novel of even recent antiquity, one encounters the slightest positive portrayal. In the late James Clavell’s series of Eastern novels (Shogun, Tai-Pan, Gai-Jin etc.) the reader runs across homosexual characters with fair regularity and, while the Westerners in the books may express disgust or derision, their Oriental counterparts accept the difference without even a shrug. One learns, after painful experience, to look (and feel disproportionately grateful) for the little things. In, for example, the decidedly heterosexual The Seven Year Itch, George Axelrod and Billy Wilder have Marilyn Monroe casually mention the two men who live upstairs from her. They’re interior decorators, and never seen (making them even more invisible than the then most visible homo of the period, the faceless Sebastian Venable in Suddenly, Last Summer) and while their profession is certainly a coded inference of their being a couple of fags, at least they’re mentioned. A year later Sal Mineo would create what is arguably the first important gay character in a mainstream movie, the doomed Plato of the gay Stewart Stern and the bisexual Nicholas Ray’s influential Rebel without a Cause, but again you have to pay fairly close attention. (Note the Alan Ladd pin-up in his high school locker.) And since he’s only the queer-boy, Plato’s violent death isn’t even properly mourned in that overrated potboiler’s ludicrous finale (“Mom, Dad… This is Judy…”)

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While some very good authors (Ross MacDonald in his Lew Archer novels, for one) toss fags into the mix as an especially unsavory element of their rot-gut ragouts, others, such as Raymond Chandler, seem to be working out more something personal, if coded to the point of the subliminal. Chandler was no friend to the faggot, yet one of his most deeply felt Philip Marlowe novels (The Long Goodbye) seems to hinge on Marlowe’s homoerotic friendship with Terry Lennox. They damn near meet-cute, and there is virtually no reason for their instant liking of each other beyond the physical. Yet I feel sure that, like the man who made the best extant movie of one of his books, Chandler (or Marlowe, anyway) would have presented a knuckle-sandwich to anyone who suggested such a thing, just as Howard Hawks was known to dismiss film critics who commented on the nearly incessant, and occasionally risible, instances of intense male friendship in his movies. (The infamous scene of John Ireland and Montgomery Clift comparing pistols in Red River springs instantly to mind, and the entire, and central, Clift/John Wayne antagonism in that movie seems, pretty clearly, a sublimation of unspoken erotic and emotional desire.)

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A friend recently asked me if I found the gay characters in The Maltese Falcon offensive. I replied that, at least as far as the movie was concerned, I was more amused than anything else. It tickles me that, in 1940, John Huston (and in his debut as a writer-director, no less) actually got away with a supporting cast made up entirely of fairies: The lavender-scented Joel Cairo, the garrulous Caspar Gutman and, not incidentally, The Fat Man’s catamite, Wilmur. It amuses me as well, as it did my friend, that so many ignoramuses have assumed the word “gunsel” was street patois for “cheap, gun-toting young hood,” and that it has come to mean that, when in fact it refers to a kept-boy: The passive partner in anal intercourse. Sam Spade knew it, and so did Wilmur; it’s why Wilmur gets so angry whenever Spade refers to him by that name. And as one who enjoys every subterfuge smart filmmakers used in those dread days of official (and Catholic-driven) censorship, my delight when someone like Huston could pull the wool over the Breen Office’s eyes — busily gyrating as they were for any moist sign of immorality — far outweighs my sense of hurt.

But I appear to have wandered far afield. My point is that every gay reader, or viewer, knows, and dreads, that moment when a writer he admires or a movie he’s enjoying, turns against him. And turns in a more deeply unsettling way than against nearly any reader or viewer aside from women, who, unless they’re brain and/or soul-dead, or have otherwise inured themselves to insult, know that sinking sensation all too well. That soul-chilling moment when they do it to you again. That nano-second when you sense it coming, and cringe in advance, and hope against all hope that your instincts will be proven wrong. That stomach-churning moment when a writer or filmmaker instantaneously devolves from your erudite companion to your sudden, and very possibly lifelong, nemesis. And, unlike the actress in my play, they’re never in the least sorry for it afterward. As Paul Lehrmann asks, and answers, at the end of The Dogs of Foo, “Do you know the Hollywood definition of a faggot? A homosexual gentleman who’s just left the room.”

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross