Sunday 26 May 2013

Philip MacDonald: Gethryn on Film

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about The List of Adrian Messenger. This was the last of Philip MacDonald's 12 novels featuring his intelligence officer turned amateur detective Anthony Gethryn (great name).

Now thanks to my favourite DVD shop, Fopp (when in London, shop at Fopp) I have a copy of John Huston's film of The List of Adrian Messenger which I watched as soon as I got it home.

I'm a big admirer of Huston and I'd actually once seen this movie, or some of it, on television, over 20 years ago. I had vague memories of foxhunting and latex masks — which, as it turns out, are not too inaccurate.

The first thing to be said about the film is that it seriously understates Philip MacDonald's contribution. His authorship of the novel isn't even mentioned. Instead he gets on-screen credit in small letters for providing the 'story' of the film.

Now, in the  language of screenwriting attribution a story credit usually means the writer either wrote a brief treatment on which the film was based, or did the first draft of the script which was subsequently massively altered.

Meanwhile in large letters the screenplay is credited to Anthony Veiller. Veiller was a veteran screenwriter who had often collaborated with John Huston, notably on Night of the Iguana, The Killers and Beat the Devil.

As a result of his work on the Messenger script, Anthony Veiller was nominated by the Mystery Writers of American for their Edgar Alan Poe award in 1964.

Veiller (and presumably Huston, who was himself a first rate screenwriter) certainly did an excellent job of adapting MacDonald's novel. The book has been ingeniously compressed and conflated and some very effective new material has been invented, notably at the end.

However, Philip MacDonald's contribution has been unfairly glossed over by the minuscule story credit. The plot of his book has been faithfully followed (up until the end) with many of the incidents carefully retained, the characters and their relationships are present and correct — even the love story, featuring the delectable Dana Wynters as Lady Jocelyn, has been transferred intact, and is handled charmingly and amusingly — perhaps even more so than it was in MacDonald's original.

And much of MacDonald's (excellent) dialogue has been lifted straight from the novel for the movie.

In any case, it's great to see Gethryn (well played by George C. Scott) come to life on screen complete with his regular police stooges — sorry, collaborators — Lucas and Pike. 

The acting throughout the movie is mostly of an agreeably high standard, with perhaps the  exception of Tony Huston, the director's young son who has been cast out of his depth and seems uncomfortable in the role of an English heir to a large fortune — which provides the movie's McGuffin.

This is an engrossing, intelligent, well made film, shot in black and white with Ted Scaife contributing to the photography and a music score by the great Jerry Goldsmith.

As I mentioned, the ending of the movie differs considerably from the book. I didn't mind this, partly because the conclusion of the novel wasn't entirely satisfactory, involving as it did a sudden shift in location (from England to America) and the introduction of a new group of characters to assist the good guys.

In the film the climax is kept in England, and indeed is set in the estates of the family who are central to the plot, which makes a lot of sense. And by allowing the psychopathic killer to actually enter into the home of the aristocratic family it makes for a more satisfactory game of cat and mouse.

However, there is a minor but annoying flaw here. When the killer turns up to join the foxhunting aristos, Gethryn knows exactly who he is. So why doesn't he just arrest him? Well, because he doesn't have any evidence. The entire case against the killer (played by Kirk Douglas) is circumstantial.

But someone needed to point this out in dialogue.

But there is a much bigger problem with the film. In the novel the killer makes use of disguise to change his identity. In the movie they decided to really go to town on this, with the result that Kirk Douglas staggers around under layers of latex, wearing some of the most egregious and phony make up I've ever seen in my life.

Unbelievably, the film makers seemed to have thought these prosthetic disguises were so impressive that they'd make them a major part of the movie's marketing. And so there are risible cameos by big stars (Tony Curtis, Robert Mitchum, Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster) in tiny roles, also buried under these ludicrous, lumpy-faced joke-shop masks. I wish they hadn't bothered.

What makes this exercise even more pointless is the fact that some of the supposed cameos weren't even played by the stars in question, but rather a disguised actor called Jan Merlin.

But none of this prevents The List of Adrian Messenger being a superior thriller and a worthy adaptation of the novel.

There were five films of Gethryn novels, but I suspect this is by far the best of them. 

The DVD doesn't feature any extras, but it is a nice crisp transfer and is available for a bargain price.

(Image credits: the nice poster at the top is from Torrent Butler, a site with a fantastic collection of John Huston film posters which is well worth a visit. Indeed, Huston seems to have attracted a lot of excellent internet activity. The photo of George C. Scott as Gethryn and the other bloke — John Merrivale as Adrian Messenger himself — with his back to us and the shot of Kirk Douglas removing his disguise are from an impressive blog called Every John Huston Movie. Check it out. The photo of Huston with his son Tony on location is from A Certain Cinema. The still of Gethryn at the chalkboard is from Talkin' Oldies. The British knife-in-the-back DVD cover is from the distributor Metrodome. No one actually gets knifed in the movie though — our careful psychopath's whole schtick is to make the killings look accidental.The brightly coloured alternative DVD cover is from Film List. The foxhunt still with Gethryn in the foreground and, if you look carefully, John Huston in a cameo on horseback in the background, is from Mounds and Circles. Dana Wynter as Lady Jocelyn holding a cat — no pussy jokes, please — is from 148 Bonnie Meadow Road, a laudable blog about cats in the movies. The French movie poster is from Film Affinity, as is the second French poster. The image of Huston smoking one of the cigars that killed him is from Good Fellas Movie Blog. The image of Huston smoking one of the cigarettes that killed him is from MUBI. The final smoking picture is of Huston as Noah Cross in Chinatown and is from Wikipedia, where it is mislabeled.)


  1. You've spurred me on to watching this :)

  2. I have seen this on TV a few years ago. Rather odd that the supposed cameo roles weren't even played by the actors who appear at the end of the movie. What was the point of that?
    Bizarre. I can't remember much about the movie. After reading
    your excellent review I might consider re-watching it if it is on
    TV again.
    Best regards.