Martin Cruz Smith's 1981 novel Gorky Park added a new wrinkle to Cold War crime fiction. The intrepid detective is a Russian police detective in Moscow, where his investigation of three murders puts him in conflict with both political power players and a wealthy international trader. The tale of murder, greed, corruption and betrayal became a bestseller as it both upended Cold War stereotypes and confirmed American suspicions of a repressive Soviet society. The rights were quickly snapped up by Hollywood producers Gene Kirkwood and Howard W. Koch, Jr., who signed John Schlesinger to direct and Dennis Potter, the award-winning writer of the BBC miniseries and big screen version of Pennies from Heaven (1981), to adapt the hefty novel. Potter saw the protagonist, militia detective Arkady Renko, as "Philip Marlowe in Moscow" and believed that he could find "something much sleeker and faster locked inside." In addition to streamlining the story, he relocated the climax from New York City to Stockholm, Sweden, with the blessings of the producers.
Dustin Hoffman was in negotiations to play the leading role of Arkady Renko, but his $5 million price tag proved too much for the budget. William Hurt, then a newly-minted leading man, took the part as his follow-up to his career-making performance in The Big Chill (1983). Meanwhile, Schlesinger had dropped out due to scheduling conflicts and the versatile Michael Apted, whose career spanned everything from the British rock musical Stardust (1974) to the American biopic Coal Miner's Daughter (from 1980 and where he directed star Sissy Spacek to an Oscar) to the landmark documentary Up series and its follow-ups, took over as director.
For the role of Jack Osborne, a powerful American importer connected to the victims, the producers approached Cary Grant and Burt Lancaster before casting Lee Marvin. Character actor Brian Dennehy took the role of the only other major American character in the film, a New York cop conducting his own investigation, and Polish actress Joanna Pacula made her English language debut in the key role of the beautiful Soviet dissident Irina, earning a Golden Globe nomination for her performance. Apart from Hurt and Pacula, however, the Russian characters were all played by British actors, with English accents setting them apart from the American characters. That meant that Hurt, who briefly studied in England, had to add an English accent to his performance.
The project "offered me the opportunity to create a gallery of Russian characters that haven't been seen on the screen before," explained Apted in an interview. "It's a familiar story set against an alien background, but this background and the choice of characters produce an end result that is original." One issue that the production had to overcome was location. Apted and his team scouted locations in the Soviet Union but officials refused to allow the production to shoot in the country because the novel's negative portrayal of Russians and the Communist Party. "I'm a documentarian at heart and I like to have real things as the sources of inspiration," explained Apted in an interview, and he was determined to capture the reality of life in the USSR.
The producers found their replacement in Helsinki, Finland, a city relatively close to the Soviet border. Production designer Paul Sylbert recreated the look of Moscow with the help of sketches and photos he had taken on his own scouting trip to Russia, and Apted relied on hours of interviews with Russian émigrés to help evoke the social atmosphere of the city. Even the cigarettes that Renko smokes were accurate, brought back from Moscow by members of the production team.
Hurt was a stage veteran with only four feature films to his credit and according to reports from the set, Hurt's method acting style and meticulous approach collided with the rest of the cast. Apted, who praised Hurt as "open and vulnerable" and "very hard working and collaborative," admitted that he was also "meticulous and difficult" and that the English actors were tough on Hurt. The director gave credit to Lee Marvin for helping Hurt find his footing on the set and Hurt had nothing but praise for Marvin, who "acted the hell out his scenes," in his own words. "I wanted to let this person teach me… And he did, on so many levels you wouldn't believe."
"Apted's approach to the material is archly effective, making for a crisp, intricate thriller, well able to hold an audience's interest," wrote film critic Janet Maslin in The New York Times. At a price tag of $15 million, however, thanks to extensive location shooting in Finland and Sweden, it was a financial disappointment. Yet it stands as the first contemporary American movie to portray life in the Soviet Union. After rewatching the film for the first time after more than 30 years, Apted remarked that "it's hard to imagine that no one had ever seen inside Russia before so the stuff we were doing was new information to an American audience… I'm much more pleased with it than I thought I would be."
Dennis Potter: A Biography, Humphrey Carpenter. St. Martin's Press, 1998.
Potter on Potter, ed. Graham Fuller. Faber and Faber, 1993.
William Hurt: The Man, The Actor, Toby Goldstein. St. Martin's Press, 1987.
"Gorky Park Murders in Moscow," Janet Maslin. The New York Times, December 16, 1983.
"Gorky Park: Michael Apted Interview," produced by Walter Olsen. Kino Lorber Blu-ray, 2014.
"Pruning dead wood in Gorky Park," Dennis Potter. Sunday Times Magazine, December 18, 1983.
AFI Catalog of Feature Films