Judge Paul Pritchard has a stash of French letters, if you're interested.
"Nephew, they say that heroes can't imagine their own death and that's why they're heroes. You go 'em one better. You imagine you're immune to violence."
Released in 1970 to little fanfare, The Kremlin Letter subsequently disappeared from public view. Though having picked up little critical acclaim upon its theatrical release, John Huston's spy thriller has garnered a more favorable assessment in the intervening years. Now, thanks to Eureka!, the film is finally available on Region 2 DVD as part of their Eureka! Classics line.
Facts of the Case
When an unauthorized letter disclosing American support for Russia (should China acquire the atomic bomb) falls into the hands of Russian agent Dmitri Polyakov, the United States sets about retrieving it. Polyakov has a history of assisting the United States by selling Russian secrets to them, but when he commits suicide upon being captured by Colonel Yakov Kosnov (Max von Sydow, The Exorcist) of the Soviet counterintelligence agency, the mission is made all the more difficult.
The task of retrieving the letter is handed to a private intelligence organization, following a number of recent failures within governmental agencies. Following the disappearance of one of the team, United States Navy Intelligence Officer Charles Rone (Patrick O'Neal) is recruited to the mission, owing to his photographic memory, ability to judge a situation, and ability to speak eight different languages, all with the correct accent.
Rone is mentored by Ward (Richard Boone), who instructs him to locate three other members of their group that he believes will be crucial to the mission's success. Rone is put through his training before the group head out to the Soviet Union.
The Kremlin Letter, released in 1970, is very much the anti-James Bond. There is little glamour to the world of espionage presented here, with very few witty quips, and nary a fantastical gadget in sight. Instead, John Huston's film (adapted from the novel by Noel Behn, who himself worked for the U.S. Army's Counterintelligence Corps) is a complex, often cold and brutal thriller where bodies are sacrificed or sold for the sake of national security.
All but the most observant of viewers will most likely fall behind with the multiple plot developments, as the film's complexity grows unabated; clearly John Huston had no interest in dumbing down the story just to ensure his movie a more universal appeal. This should be commended, as the film rewards the more observant and patient viewer. It is also true to say that even those who find themselves unable to keep up with events will still find much to enjoy, as we are treated to a collection of memorable scenes and characters.
Rone's training, which takes up the opening 40 minutes of the movie, is rather more downbeat than what we've come to expect from the genre. The initial meetings with his team members reveal a tight-knit group who are especially suspicious of anyone new, threatening Rone's own life when he himself proposes the induction of B.A. (Barbara Parkins), when their preferred accomplice refuses to join the mission. This ambivalence is also evident in how neither the Americans or Russians are seen to be particularly heroic, making The Kremlin Letter one of the more refreshing spy thrillers. Both sides of the divide show little remorse for their actions, and, unlike the Bond movies, tongues are kept firmly out of cheeks. One scene, which stands out as being truly masterful, sees the Americans blackmailing Captain Potkin (Ronald Radd), head of Soviet counterintelligence, by making a very real threat against his family, whom they have taken hostage. The sequence is made all the more harrowing by the inclusion of footage of Potkin's young daughter, bound and gagged.
The film's focus is split equally between the U.S. operatives and their Soviet counterparts. This allows us to better understand each side's motivations, while adding depth to both. We also see how both sides face similar crises of conscience, as their often despicable actions come back to haunt them. This is illustrated in the reaction seen in Soviet agent Erika Kosnov (Bibi Andersson), when Orson Welles' Bresnavitch unceremoniously reveals to her the true coldblooded nature of her husband, Max Von Sydow's Colonel Kosnov. Retelling the story of how he tortured and killed a village of innocents to get information, Bresnavitch clearly delights in making Kosnov squirm, while his wife's distress causes her to flee the previously cordial dinner party they were attending. The scene is also interesting for the juxtaposition of this clearly affluent group with such dark and violent actions.
Adding to the film's realism is how the mission is very much seen to be a team effort. Yes, Patrick O'Neal's Charles Rone is given the lion's share of the screen time, but this is because, as the newest recruit to the team, he is our guide into the world of espionage; we learn the rules and workings as he does. Rone is no lone wolf, merely one cog in the machine.
Richard Boone (The Shootist) is the standout amongst an impressive cast. Even when put up against excellent performances from the likes of Max von Sydow and Orson Welles, Boone, in the pivotal role of Ward, is mesmerizing. He talks fast, thinks faster, and is the one character that one suspects is ahead of the curve. Boone exudes confidence, ensuring his performance is believable, and has a knack for switching from friendly mentor to deadly adversary in the blink of an eye. The small scene he shares with Bibi Anderson is amongst the film's more memorable, and is as shocking as it is brilliant, as we witness the full extent of Ward's calculated approach.
Ensuring The Kremlin Letter steers clear of James Bond territory, Huston ends his film in a suitably pessimistic yet undeniably effective manner, leaving the viewer to contemplate how the fates of several characters will now play out. This, like the rest of Huston's direction shows just how assured a filmmaker he was, not once pandering to the audience. The aforementioned meeting between Richard Boone and Bibi Andersson is all the more powerful due to Huston's choice of shot, which—intentionally or not—draws forth comparisons to the horror genre, with an almost Psycho-like vibe. With few words, Huston is able to convey the intent of Boone simply by keeping him onscreen at all times, while he allows Andersson to wander out of shot and thus force our attention towards Boone's quickly changing mannerisms. One technique that Huston employs that is sure to divide opinion is his refusal to use subtitles when Russian characters are speaking in their native language. In an interesting—though not completely successful move—Huston has the actor speak their lines in Russian before gradually making the transition to English. This switch is never as smooth as it should be, but once the viewer is accustomed to it, isn't as diverting as it initially proves to be.
Presented in a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer, The Kremlin Letter is a generally pleasing viewing experience. The image is sharp, with only the odd scene suffering from softness. Detail levels are good, while colors are natural. The print shows few signs of damage, and black levels are good. The 2.0 soundtrack is, expectedly, unspectacular. Still, dialogue is never less than crisp, while individual sounds, not to mention the score, are easily distinguishable. No extras are included on this release.
Though a few extras would have been a welcome addition, it's impossible not to recommend The Kremlin Letter. Intelligent filmmaking like this doesn't come along too often, and now that it's finally available on Region 2 it would be a crime to pass it by.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Eureka Entertainment
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