An important aspect of the film is the use of makeup to render some of the actors unrecognizable.
A writer named Adrian Messenger (John Merivale) believes a series of apparently unrelated "accidental" deaths are actually linked murders. He asks his friend Anthony Gethryn (George C. Scott), recently retired from MI5, to help clear up the mystery. However, Messenger's plane is bombed while he is en route to collect evidence to confirm his suspicions and, with his dying breath, he tries to tell a fellow passenger the key to the mystery.
The passenger survives and turns out to be Raoul Le Borg (Jacques Roux), Gethryn's old World War II counterpart in the French Resistance. They join forces to investigate Messenger's list of names, and decode Messenger's final cryptic words. They establish that all on the list were together in a prisoner of war camp in Burma, where a Canadian sergeant, George Brougham, betrayed his fellow prisoners, foiling their escape attempt. Each has a reason to kill Brougham. It evolves that Brougham is their killer, but why? They deduce that he is about to come into prominence and cannot risk being recognised. Gethryn and Le Borg establish that he stands in line to an inheritance of the Bruttenholm family, landed gentry who are friends of Gethryn and the late Messenger, and who avidly engage in fox hunting.
Having disposed of all possible witnesses to his wartime treachery, Brougham (Kirk Douglas) appears at a Bruttenholm estate fox hunt and introduces himself as a member of the family (he has previously been seen only in disguise). It then becomes clear to the visiting Gethryn and Le Borg that Brougham's next victim is to be the young heir, Derek. In an attempt to divert Brougham, Gethryn makes known his investigation of Messenger’s list, calculating to set himself up as the next victim.
That night, Brougham sabotages the next morning’s hunt by laying a drag with a fox in a sack over the fields. He especially marks a blind spot behind a high wall, and moves a large hay tedder behind, intending for Gethryn (who has been given the honor of leading the hunt) to be impaled upon its lethal tines. Unbeknownst to Brougham, his plan goes awry when a farmer repositions the tedder early the next morning. The hunt commences but comes to a halt at the specified spot. Gethryn reveals to the gathered crowd that he discovered and removed the hay-tedder booby trap earlier that morning and, with the help of the lead fox hound, will detect the scent of the culprit amongst a group of hunt saboteurs. Brougham, once again disguised, is identified and runs off, mounting Derek's horse. When Derek shouts a command to the horse, the animal stops short, throwing Brougham and impaling him on the very same machine he intended for Gethryn.Tony Curtis as Cameo (as organ grinder)
Kirk Douglas as George Brougham / Vicar Atlee / Mr. Pythian / Arthur Henderson
Burt Lancaster as Cameo (as animal rights protester)
Robert Mitchum as Cameo (as Slattery)
Frank Sinatra as Cameo (as Gypsy)
George C. Scott as Anthony Gethryn
Dana Wynter as Lady Jocelyn Bruttenholm
Clive Brook as Marquois of Gleneyre
Gladys Cooper as Mrs. Karoudjian
Herbert Marshall as Sir Willfrid Lucas
Jacques Roux as Raoul Le Borg
John Merivale as Adrian Messenger
Marcel Dalio as Max Karoudjian
Bernard Archard as Insp. Pike
Tony Huston as Derek Bruttenholm (as Walter Anthony)
Ronald Long as Carstairs (as Roald Long)
Director John Huston also gives an uncredited cameo near the film's end, as Lord Ashton.
The List of Adrian Messenger is a relatively modern Golden Age type of mystery with an additional gimmick of its own. A number of prominent Hollywood actors are advertised to appear in the film heavily disguised in make-up designed by John Chambers: Tony Curtis (as an organ-grinder), Kirk Douglas (as the killer), Burt Lancaster (as an old woman—Lancaster in fact only appears in the credits as his part in the film is actually played by Jan Merlin and voiced by an unknown actress), Frank Sinatra (as a gypsy horse-trader), and Robert Mitchum (as the final victim). Their identities are revealed to the audience at the very end of the film, when each star removes his disguise and make-up.There were several screenplay drafts, one by Vertigo co-writer Alec Coppel, before the final draft by Anthony Veiller, who receives sole screen credit.
Character actor Jan Merlin portrays several of the disguised roles in the film, despite attribution to stars such as Kirk Douglas. Merlin later incorporated his experiences working on this production into a thriller novel, Shooting Montezuma (ISBN 1-4010-2823-3).
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2008: AFI's 10 Top 10:
Nominated Mystery Film
The List of Adrian Messenger was released on Region 1 DVD by Universal in 2009 as part of their print-on-demand "Vault Series." It is also available on an Australian factory-pressed PAL DVD distributed by Umbrella Entertainment. An original soundtrack recording of the Jerry Goldsmith score was released in 2014 by Varese Sarabande.Beyond Our Ken played on the title of "Messenger" in its ‘film worth remembering, which is more than can he said for the next half hour’ at the start of the fourth programme in the seventh series, first broadcast on 15 December 1963.
Get Smart did a 1970 parody of this movie called The Mess of Adrian Listenger starring Pat Paulsen aka Adrian Listenger alias Ace Weems.
The plot of Red is a variation on that of "Messenger": man coming into prominence needs to bump off old associates.