14 February 2011 | jzappa
Yes, Movies Were Total Cash-In Enterprises Back Then, Too.
John Huston displays an indiscreet lack of subtlety, taxing our tolerance with a somewhat modern English whodunit with an extra publicity stunt: Numerous major Hollywood actors are announced to appear in the film, but are all thickly concealed in John Chambers' make-up design: Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, Tony Curtis as an organ-grinder, Burt Lancaster as an old woman, Frank Sinatra as a gypsy horse-trader. Their identities are exposed to the audience at the very end of the film, when each star strips off his masquerade. Actually, only Douglas (by far the most interesting performance) and Mitchum do any real acting beneath their heaps of collodion and crepe hair. The others just walk on to shoot their brief, tacked-on unveilings at a salary of $75,000 each, while being doubled in the film itself. The film even further cheats by often dubbing their voices with that of voice-over actor Paul Frees!
The vehicle for this cash-in is a plot wherein the eponymous writer believes a succession of ostensibly isolated "accidental" deaths are really related murders. He asks his friend George C. Scott, just retired from MI5, to help resolve the obscurity, but Messenger's plane is sabotaged while he's on the way to gather data to corroborate his fears and, with his last lungful of air, he struggles to impart to a fellow passenger a crucial clue. What do you know, the passenger just so happens to be the sole survivor and
just so happens to be Scott's old WWII Resistance comrade. They collaborate to probe Messenger's inventory of names, and decipher his puzzling last gasps. Aside from the ones that insult us, more than a few story aspects in the film are akin to The Hound of the Baskervilles, like hounds, the intentions of the killer, the allusions to Canada, and the exposure of the killer using a hoax.
While we discover rather soon who the killer is, the obscurity of his intentions and the anticipation of his capture are enough to keep going, even if not gripped by genuine tension or suspense. Burdened with a rasping, implausible plot, maybe this lockstep adventure should've been set in Victorian times to oblige its villain with an infatuation with costumes, its Edwardian-style consulting sleuth in a bowler hat, and its foul play in a misty Thames Path.
There is something I quite liked, maybe because it took the edge off, made me relax and enjoy the kitsch. Before the haunting trumpet solos of Chinatown, the strange and threatening cues of Alien or the atmospheric strings of Basic Instinct, a comparatively green-horned Jerry Goldsmith shaped an evocative, and purely '60s-kitsch, ambiance out of an instrumental jumble incorporating saxophone, electric guitar, tuba, harp and the definitive eerie UFO-suggestive electronic whistle that creates nostalgic vibes as when we hear it in The Lost Weekend, Spellbound and BBC's Midsomer Murders.