At the Gleneyre estate In England, author Adrian Messenger (John Merivale) provides a list of ten names to his friend Anthony Gethryn (George C. Scott), a former MI5 operative. Messenger, acting both concerned and mysterious, asks Gethryn to quietly find out if the ten people on the list are still alive. Gethryn agrees to undertake the assignment. A few days later, a bomb explodes aboard a plane carrying Adrian as a passenger. Everyone dies in the crash, except for a Frenchman called Raoul Le Borg (Jacques Roux), who hears Messenger’s final words as they drift together in the icy ocean.
When Gethryn learns that most of the men on Messenger’s list are dead, he surmises that the plane crash was designed to kill his friend. He interviews Le Borg, who recalls Adrian’s last words before dying...but they don’t make sense. Was Adrian trying to leave an important message in code with his final breath? What’s the connection between the men on Messenger’s list and why is someone murdering each of them?
Gethryn solves the mystery with a third of the film’s running time remaining. The action then shifts back to Gleneyre—home of the wealthy Bruttenholm (pronounced “broom”) family—as Gethryn tries to outfox the killer, who has now also arrived on the scene.
Based on a 1959 novel by mystery author and screenwriter Philip MacDonald, The List of Adrian Messenger borrows the killer’s motive from another famous detective novel (no spoilers here!). But the “why” is only part of the fun in The List of Adrian Messenger. It’s the “how” that differentiates it from other mysteries. Among his many skills, the murderer is also a master of disguises, which provides the opportunity for Kirk Douglas to don a number of incredible “looks” designed by make-up master Bud Westmore. Thus, the killer appears as a pointy-chinned priest, a short mousey man, a white-haired elderly villager, and others.
George C. Scott grounds the story with a finely-etched portrait of a man just past his prime professionally, who realizes he will only be friends with the woman he loves. One wonders if Gethryn’s zeal in solving Adrian’s murder can be partially attributed to the fact that it provides a mental challenge for the former espionage agent. Gethryn even notes his admiration for the killer’s cleverness at one point. It’s a shame that Scott didn’t appear in additional films as Gethryn (MacDonald wrote 12 novels with the character; The List of Adrian Messenger was the last one).
Though the film would have worked just fine on its own merits, there’s no denying that the guest star cameos are amusing. Look closely and see if you can spot the heavily-disguised Tony Curtis, Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster, and Robert Mitchum (an easy one…he looks like an old Bob Mitchum). After the closing credits, each actor removes his disguise. According to some sources, other actors played the disguised characters in one or two scenes. I’m not sure about that, but some of the voices are definitely dubbed. Allegedly, Elizabeth Taylor turned down the chance to do a cameo because the make-up was so time-consuming.
There are other pleasures to be gained from The List of Adrian Messenger. Director John Huston keeps the plot moving quickly and does a wonderful job of foreshadowing (e.g., watch carefully and you can guess how the killer will meet his end). Jerry Goldsmith’s terrific music score is both playful and disturbing. And the English country setting provides the ideal backdrop for a climax that culminates in a fox hunt.
So, while you may enjoy the gimmicky guest stars in The List of Adrian Messenger, you’ll remember it for being a smart, inventive mystery. Maybe that’s why it’s one of those films that’s fun to watch over and over.