“Audiences rejected the picture… This surprised and disappointed me, especially as it had been aimed so directly at the box office…I still feel bad about it.” --- John Huston
That John Huston felt he had made a box office and audience-friendly picture in 1969 is perhaps proof positive one can’t design a foolproof, profitable, popular film; there are exceptions, but these tend to fall into the vacuous escapist fodder people desire where the formula and outcome of heroes and heroines are by the book.
The Kremlin Letter in no way offers fans of espionage or international subterfuge a familiar, easy to digest thriller with a pat ending; it’s mean, emotionally bleak, and everyone is used like a pawn in a fancy, elegantly carved yet disposable chess set, but as tends to happen with artistic failures, time sometimes ages the creation into something unique, and a misfire or costly dud evolves into a genre classic.
Fox’ Doctor Doolittle (1967) remains a bloated, grating, surreal cinematic dud (and one of the worst film in director Richard Fleischer’s career), and it’s highly unlikely it’ll be reappraised as an ill-treated gem, but the studio’s Kremlin Letter is based on a solid script adapted by Huston and co-writer Gladys Hill from Noel Behn’s eponymous novel, and like a proper espionage film, one must pay attention or the briskly paced scenes will overwhelm and confuse.
Starring an international cast, the story is a complex web of relationships and familiars, false identities and cover names, and a series of nicknames applied to characters with ephemeral lifespans. Similar to The List of Adrian Messenger (1963), Huston seemed to call on old friends and colleagues to boost the film’s acting needs, and it’s one of the best-cast films in his canon.
Charles Rone (Patrick O’Neal) is culled from his U.S. Navy ranks and unceremoniously drafted by a commanding officer (Huston) to a coven of aging, colourful spies determined to retrieve a dangerous letter which the U.S. is contemplating the burial of its anti-Soviet hatchet in favour of an alliance to smite an increasingly powerful China. It’s a classic Hitchcockian MacGuffin: of importance is the outright nihilism of humans trapped in a cruel chess game, not the rare item in question.
The film's early scenes are peppered with a great deal of dry wit, but by the midpoint the tone shifts to despair, as Rone and the woman he loves realize they’re whoring their lives for a cause that other people with less morals ought to be doing.
Rone is a quick-learner with photographic memory and a multitude of accents, but there is a limit to the level of revulsion he can suppress; the question by the film’s end is whether he’ll crack, or graduate into the major leagues and become the super-spy with a dead soul, able to follow orders with no hesitation like his superior, Ward (brilliantly played by Richard Boone).
The less one knows about Kremlin Letter, the better, because it’s a film that draws in audiences with details (training, behaviour, control techniques), and gives foul villains like Colonel Kosnov (Max von Sydow) shades of sympathetic grey; even a former torturer has wounds.
Huston may have felt audiences in 1970 were ready for some serious stuff. James Bond had become a screen action figure with a plethora of gizmos to save him in the neck of time, and the success of that franchise spawned a bevy of imitative series, some serious, a few tongue-in-cheek, others derivative and / or satirical. The espionage genre may well have run its course within 8 years, and while it sounded logical to bring back a level of seriousness and realism (neither Rone nor any of the spies have toys), the spy film needed a rest, and Kremlin Letter simply came too late to the wave.
Not that it would’ve survived in the marketplace among cartoon imitations films, but had it been made soon after The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), it would’ve been acknowledge as a mid-level genre classic.
It’s also possible period critics felt the famous faces detracted from the story, finding it all gimmicky. Among Rone’s fellow spy masters are actors Boone (beautifully playing a sadist and puppeteer with a loving ‘uncle’ smile), Nigel Greene (The Ruling Class), Dean Jagger as the group head, George Sanders (in drag, and in charge of the Soviet gay contingent), Niall MacGinnis (Curse of the Demon), and Raf Vallone (The Italian Job) in a bit part.
Unlike her grating, wretched refugee caricature in Hitchcock’s own Cold War espionage clunker, Torn Curtain (1966), Lila Kedrova is superb in Kremlin Letter, delivering some of the script’s blackest bon mots. Her character – a weary Madame – is illustrative of the realism in a spy network: you live with the ups and downs, don’t get emotionally attached to anyone, and maintain healthy cynicism to keep sane when you realize your term in the spy world is without end.
Barbara Parkins’ character (branded B.A.) is given little screen time, but she’s intriguing for being a naïf drafted by her father (MacGinnis) into the team, and discovering some sympathy in Rone when both realize they've become ostensibly some U.S. bureaucrat’s whores in a grand spy game.
Whoring is in fact among the film’s main themes, because every character lost their virginity eons ago – voluntarily, or by force. Cruel Kosnov ordered the Kremlin letter’s courier’s family killed, save for his wife (Bibi Andersson), whom Kosnov marries either because she has legit secrets he needs to acquire in order to stay relevant in the organization, or he likes the fact she’s a career prostitute and performs specialties with a smile.
Huston’s casting of von Sydow and Andersson is also quite novel – the two appeared in several of Ingmar Bergman’s greatest films, including The Seventh Seal (1957), Wild Strawberries (1957), and The Passion of Anna (1969) – but the pair also excel at playing emotionally fubared people: he’s a monster trying to stay alive, and she’s simply lost in a life with no exit in sight.
When she meets Rone, undercover as a gigolo in a whorehouse, Andersson's character derives sick pleasure in humiliating each other – and their scenes are among the film’s most disturbing and potent. A lesser actress would’ve reduced the character to a mere trophy whore, but Andersson created a great study of an active psychological crack-up, and her disintegration is given generous script and screen time.
There are some striking similarities between Kremlin Letter and John Frankenheimer’s Ronin (1998) – professionals, newbies and novices involved in the retrieval of a MacGuffin using fast cars and lots of guns – but whereas Frankenheimer and screenwriter David Mamet chose to focus on the cars driven by emotionally numbed characters moving across Europe in endless chases, Huston stuck with modest character development.
The film’s parting scene is brave for not giving audiences (or the studio) closure; it’s emotionally brutal, and puts the hero and the audience in an ugly position, forcing both parties to weigh a wretched choice.
Because Huston wanted to create a semblance of authenticity, the actors initially speak their dialogue in Russian, but after a few beats switch to English – a move designed to ease viewers into an exotic locale, minus the need for English subtitles. For the Russian dialogue, the actors speak the English translations as though patterns – an unusual approach that predates John McTiernan’s decision to similarly begin his Soviet scenes in The Hunt for Red October (1990) in Russian with English subtitles, but after a specific camera move, have all subsequent dialogue stay in English.
After the dud A Walk with Love and Death (1969), The Kremlin Letter should’ve restored Huston’s stature, but its success was followed by an aborted term as director of The Last Run (1971) - replaced by Doolittle’s Fleischer, no less – but his immediate projects were again artistically rewarding but risky box office ventures: Fat City (1972), The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972), his second (minimalist) Cold War drama, The MacKintosh Man (1973), and more notably The Man Who Would Be King (1975), co-written with Gladys Hill.
When he did aim for commercial projects, the films were variable duds such as the Canadian tax shelter clunker Phobia [M] (1980), the soccer film Victory (1981), and the film version of Annie (1982) – collectively forming the director’s trilogy of directorial whoring, but he did regain his mojo, and followed with three classics before his death: Under the Volcano (1984), Prizzi’s Honor (1985), and his final film, The Dead (1987).
Twilight Time’s DVD includes a clean transfer of the film, made from a new print struck by Fox to answer the needs of Kremlin Letter’s growing fan base. Although a single layer DVD, the details are decent, the colours are balanced, and there isn’t heavy noisy reduction to address the film grain. The mono sound mix is rather low, requiring a greater volume boost during playback, but Robert Drasnin’s score has been isolated in an alternate stereo track, including his bouncy source cues.
Julie Kirgo’s liner notes provide a compact overview of Huston’s move from Oscar-winning writer & director during the forties to the maverick filmmaker of artistically rich and occasionally ill-conceived works.
She also mentions an additional scene that was reportedly included during an airing of a panned & scanned transfer on Britain’s ITV network. Because there’s no empirical confirmation of the Bolshoi Ballet's scene’s survival in any other form, TT’s DVD features the U.S. theatrical cut.
A nice bonus would’ve been the original theatrical trailer, since it would’ve been fascinating to see how Fox’s publicity department marketed a film with so little joy.
A curious footnote among the cast is a young Vonetta McGee, who plays the spy that seduces the college aged daughter of a Soviet agent in the U.S. As proof of the spy genre losing ground in the gravitas department, she would appear in the blaxploitation James Bond mash-up Shaft in Africa (1973), and more importantly, in The Eiger Sanction (1975), as Clint Eastwood’s ebony partner Jemima Brown, weaving in and around colourful double-agents, sleazebags, and colloquial, sexist chatter Huston would never have touched.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan