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The Kremlin Letter

The Kremlin Letter(1970)

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teaser The Kremlin Letter (1970)

With the turn of the '70s, storied filmmaker John Huston was sorely in need of a hit when he signed on for the screen adaptation of Noel Behn's Cold War espionage potboiler The Kremlin Letter (1970). Suffice to say that the box-office returns were not what either director or studio had hoped; still, the finished project is an entry in Huston's oeuvre still worth investigating, for its echoes of such front-line offerings as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Asphalt Jungle (1950), and the satiric audaciousness that Huston brought to the proceedings.

Huston's black bird here is the titular missive, an unauthorized written promise made by a U.S. diplomat promising the U.S.S.R. America's alliance should the Soviets ever decide to attack Red China. Uncle Sam, understandably, wants this document back, and a high-ranking intelligence chieftain referred to only as "the Highwayman" (Dean Jagger) selects his point man for the mission, retired naval officer Charles Rone (Patrick O'Neal).

Along with his briefing, Rone receives the identities of the genuinely mixed bag of operatives who'll be at his disposal, including B.A. (Barbara Parkins), the gorgeous lockpick who inherited her notorious safecracker father's skills and then some; "the Whore" (Nigel Green), a small-time pimp from a Mexican brothel; Ward (Richard Boone), the matter-of-fact veteran spy who's the Highwayman's trusted second; and "the Warlock" (George Sanders), an aging San Francisco transvestite possessed of entre into Moscow society.

After blackmailing a Soviet spy (Ronald Radd) to gain access to his Moscow apartment for a base of operations, the cadre sets out to bug the office of Vladimir Kosnov (Max von Sydow), the chief of the secret police. It isn't long before the spies find themselves caught in a power struggle between Kosnov and politician Aleksei Bresnavitch (Orson Welles), and in working their way out, encounter a string of double-crosses as well as the stunning truth underlying their mission.

In his memoir An Open Book, Huston remembered his disappointment with the popular reception that met The Kremlin Letter. "The book [had] been a best seller. It had, moreover, all those qualities that were just coming into fashion in 1970 - violence, lurid sex, drugs...Gladys Hill and I wrote the script, which I considered quite good, though in retrospect it was perhaps overcomplicated."

Perhaps overcomplicated, and perhaps too over the top too often; New York Times critic Vincent Canby wrote at the time of the film's opening that "as with so many recent Huston films, the scale of everything - geography, sets, absurdities, misanthropies, running time - has been enlarged as if to disguise what looks to be the director's awful boredom with movies."

More charitable was Sight and Sound, which declared that "Even if we forget the meaning and concentrate on the fun - as Huston himself has done for long stretches - the eventful trip through Hustonland should leave us with little cause for complaint." Huston felt "the performances couldn't have been bettered. It was extremely well photographed [by Ted Scaife]-there was a virtuosity, a shine to it...I wished I could have given my friends [producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown] if not blockbusters, at least successful films. I still feel bad about it."

Producers: Carter DeHaven, Sam Wiesenthal; John Huston (uncredited)
Director: John Huston
Screenplay: Gladys Hill, John Huston; Noel Behn (novel "The Kremlin Letter")
Cinematography: Ted Scaife
Art Direction: Elven Webb
Music: Robert Drasnin
Film Editing: Russell Lloyd
Cast: Bibi Andersson (Erika Kosnov), Richard Boone (Ward), Nigel Green (The Whore), Dean Jagger (Highwayman), Lila Kedrova (Madam Sophie), Micheal MacLiammoir (Sweet Alice), Patrick O'Neal (Charles Rone), Barbara Parkins (B.A.), Ronald Radd (Captain Potkin), George Sanders (Warlock), Raf Vallone (Puppet Maker), Max von Sydow (Colonel Kosnov), Orson Welles (Bresnavitch), John Huston (Admiral).
C-125m. Letterboxed.

by Jay S. Steinberg

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