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Standing at the tail end of the 1960s spy craze is this superb espionage thriller from John Huston, starring a wild array of actors in a dizzying storyline guaranteed to confuse its audience -- in a good way. I've seen The Kremlin Letter innumerable times, and I have to say that I was too entertained the first three or four to even try to solve the intricacies of its ill-fated spy mission to Moscow.
John Huston thought he had a winner with this show. As with The Maltese Falcon his adaptation follows the novel in almost every detail. Although I remember hearing applause at my first screening, audiences of 1970 rejected The Kremlin Letter. I don't believe that the film's complexity was the deal-breaker, though: I think they were put off by its unrelenting parade of unsavory characters and sordid situations. The images of vice and cruelty on screen had little in common with the escapist sex and sadism of previous spy pictures. Audiences expecting Patrick O'Neal's secret agent to become a heroic Galahad were let down. Not only does O'Neal fail to save the heroine, he's a boorish and conceited know-it-all. We're told that the role was originally offered to James Coburn, but I'm glad that he turned it down -- for all his coldness, I think O'Neal is a proper fit for this unusually ruthless spy film.
For movie fans looking for something more sophisticated and demanding than clowns like Matt Helm, The Kremlin Letter delivers the goods. The story is about a complicated "mission to Moscow" in which agents must accept the probability of defeat and horrible death. Naval Officer Charles Rone (O'Neal) is pulled from the service to lend his talents (martial arts, a photographic memory, a talent for strategy) to a desperate spy mission to recover a compromising letter from Moscow. The Highwayman (Dean Jagger) and his #1 assistant Ward (Richard Boone) send Rone to round up three master spies from the old days, The Whore (Nigel Green), Warlock (George Sanders) and The Erector Set (Niall MacGuinness). The Erector Set's daughter B.A. (Barbara Parkins) takes his place; she's a consummate safecracker and cat burglar. The team sneaks into Moscow and obtains the use of an apartment owned by KGB security officer Potkin (Ronald Radd) by kidnapping and threatening his wife and daughters. The Whore joins a prostitution ring run by Madam Sophie (Lila Kedrova) and is the first to contact a Chinese Doctor called The Kitai (Anthony Chinn), who has access to drugs and may know the whereabouts of the target letter. The Warlock infiltrates a group of intellectual homosexuals to learn more about the murdered broker who brought the letter to Moscow ... his widow Erika, an ex- German prostitute, is now the wife of the feared secret policeman Colonel Kosnov (Max von Sydow). But more than one plot is unspooling: central party member Bresnavitch (Orson Welles) seems to know more about the missing letter, and the possibility of a spy mission to retrieve it, than does Kosnov. Charles Rone and B.A. fall in love with each other, but are separated by the mission. She takes up with a black market thief to put a bug in Kosnov's apartment. Rone is given the even riskier job of seducing and controlling Kosnov's wife Erika -- who is an unstable masochist.
The Kremlin Letter confronts its audience not with mere nudity or profanity, but with a seemingly endless parade of extreme content (for 1969). All of the spies are selfish adventurers. The Whore is training Mexican prostitutes to be wrestlers. The Warlock entertains in a San Francisco gay bar -- the sight of George Sanders in a blonde wig is startling because he looks so natural. The delicate B.A. has been trained in a ruthless profession that she may not be ready for, emotionally. The Highwayman is a humorless espionage veteran whose dedication to the mission is such that ... (spoiler deletion here). And the crude but jocular Ward treats Rone like a rookie on a ball club: "Junior! Get your ass in here!" In Moscow, the spies dive straight into the gay coffee klatches and the drug & prostitution-ridden underground club scene. Rone must beat up a woman in the line of duty, and Ward extorts the cooperation of a tearful Russian father by telling him that his only alternative is to see his daughter turned into "the most perverted person our minds can imagine." 1
The author's characters soon become standard Huston characters, desperate adventurers who reach for but never quite grasp success. Solving the mystery isn't just a matter of unmasking a traitor or a secret plot, but the revelation that the whole point of the mission is similar to the aim of the mystery millionaire in Mr. Arkadin. I wonder if Orson Welles was aware of this as he played his small but colorful role. John Huston is one of the few directors for whom Welles would probably behave, and the director rewards him with a signature Huston exit: a hearty, cynical laugh of defeat.
The Kremlin Letter stays exciting because the agents are so far out on a limb, in perpetual risk of arrest. The conceited "human computer" Rone is forced to become a hero by default, fighting agents on the street in a desperate effort to rescue his comrades. I don't know of another spy movie that carries out such a logical progression of anti-heroic, "heroic" acts. The agents are ruthless egotists, yet sacrifice themselves like cool professionals. One commits suicide just to warn a confederate. Rone must allow B.A. to be captured, almost surely to face torture and death. But even Rone's professionalism is overturned by an impressively well-hidden twist (several, actually) in the final reels.
What we remember most from the film are the faces of its characters: Richard Boone's pockmarked grin as he dares Rone to attack him with a switchblade; Barbara Parkins' B.A. asking Rone to teach her how to make love; Nigel Green's greedy eyebrows and George Sanders' flirtatious smirk. The most interesting performance is from Bibi Andersson, especially when she wants to lose herself in sex and drugs, and hires Rone, who is masquerading as a male prostitute. Almost everybody in the story has a moment where they face utter defeat; it's even more chilling when we realize that some of them disappear into the unknown chambers of the security police, and perish off-screen. I don't know if The Kremlin Letter's fantasy is sleazy hokum or an accurate reflection of the inhuman horror of high-stakes espionage. But it's a terrific spy movie for viewers who want more than two-way radios and comic book villains. It's a great movie, and John Huston was robbed.
This new DVD of The Kremlin Letter is the first release from Twilight Time, a branded line under the Fox umbrella. In contrast to Burn On Demand products, the Twilight Time discs are real pressed DVDS available only through a single online seller, Screen Archives. The image is clean and colorful. The audio is clear enough but I had to crank my speakers higher because of the unusually low volume level.
The disc carries a second audio track that isolates Robert Drasnin's musical score but is otherwise light on extras. A handsome insert pamphlet contains color pictures and a useful essay by Julie Kirgo. We learn that snowy locations in Helskinki stood in for Moscow. We also learn that a rumored missing scene where a character makes a brief phone call at the ballet did exist but only on a long-gone international release version of the film. Kirgo says that it was never shown on American screens.
The Kremlin Letter is a welcome release to be sure. The cover illustration is a curious portrait of a man's face lit from below. I assume that it's Patrick O'Neal but it certainly doesn't suggest anything from the movie -- it reminds me more of a portrait of Henry Hull as The WereWolf of London! Twilight Time's ads and the package itself states that the title has been pressed as a limited edition run of 3,000 units.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Kremlin Letter rates:
1. Back in 1970 I was in a high school movie club run by the audio visual installation at Norton Air Force Base. Our director was a young officer who was a real film fan -- I remember reading a book in his place about Godard's Alphaville. I ran into this fellow and his wife after an air base screening of The Kremlin Letter. He was all shook up -- he thought it was sleazy, immoral trash and that it shouldn't have been made. This was 1970 ... considering the direction that movies took, I wonder if this fellow just stopped going to movies altogether.
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T'was Ever Thus.