The Kremlin Letter


2h 1m 1970

Brief Synopsis

A team of spies tries to recover a CIA letter that could trigger an international incident.

Film Details

MPAA Rating
Genre
Spy
Release Date
Jan 1970
Premiere Information
New York opening: 1 Feb 1970
Production Company
Twentieth Century--Fox Film Corp.
Country
United States
Location
Central Park Zoo, New York City, New York, USA; Greenwich Village, New York City, New York, USA; Mexico; Museum of the Hispanic Society of America, New York City, New York, USA; Helsinki, Finland
Screenplay Information
Based on the novel The Kremlin Letter by Noel Behn (New York, 1966).

Technical Specs

Duration
2h 1m
Sound
Mono
Color
Color (DeLuxe)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
2.35 : 1

Synopsis

An American intelligence officer signs an agreement with the Soviet Union stating that both countries will attack China, and the U. S. government hastily assembles a group of espionage agents to recover the unauthorized treaty called the "Kremlin Letter." The team, under the leadership of The Highwayman, consists of Rone, a retired U. S. Navy officer; B. A., a safecracker's daughter who replaces her ailing father on the mission; Janis, a small-time pimp from a Mexican brothel; The Warlock, a transvestite found in a San Francisco gay bar; and Ward, The Highwayman's top assistant. In New York, the Americans have a lesbian seduce the daughter of U. S.-based Russian spy Potkin in order to blackmail him into turning over his Moscow apartment as a base for their operations. In Moscow, they bug the residence of Secret Police Chief Kosnov, who is married to Erika, the widow of an enemy spy; Kosnov is currently engaged in a power struggle with political leader Aleksei Bresnavitch. Meanwhile, B. A., who has become Rone's lover, is captured by Bresnavitch. When Ward temporarily leaves the country, Potkin confesses to Bresnavitch what has happened. Bresnavitch has another problem, however: Rone has discovered that he (Bresnavitch) is a traitor and that the Kremlin Letter is in Peking. Ward is also revealed to be a traitor, working for Bresnavitch. Upon his return, Ward kills Erika, who had devised a plan to sneak Rone out of Russia, and at the airport, he also murders Kosnov, an old friend who had doublecrossed him several years before. By now Rone is ready to retire, but Ward will release B. A. only if Rone will return to the United States for one more mission--to murder Potkin's wife and daughter.

Film Details

MPAA Rating
Genre
Spy
Release Date
Jan 1970
Premiere Information
New York opening: 1 Feb 1970
Production Company
Twentieth Century--Fox Film Corp.
Country
United States
Location
Central Park Zoo, New York City, New York, USA; Greenwich Village, New York City, New York, USA; Mexico; Museum of the Hispanic Society of America, New York City, New York, USA; Helsinki, Finland
Screenplay Information
Based on the novel The Kremlin Letter by Noel Behn (New York, 1966).

Technical Specs

Duration
2h 1m
Sound
Mono
Color
Color (DeLuxe)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
2.35 : 1

Articles

The Kremlin Letter - An All-Star Cast is Featured in John Huston's THE KREMLIN LETTER


The debut release from Twilight Time, a new DVD label featuring limited run releases of select titles from the 20th Century Fox library, is a sprawling, globetrotting John Huston espionage thriller from 1970. Made in the wake of a spy movie boom, as the flamboyant James Bond fantasies gave way to disillusioned John Le Carre dramas and grim Cold War adventures like Alfred Hitchcock's Torn Curtain and Topaz, The Kremlin Letter is adapted from a from a twisty best-seller by Noel Behn that (in Huston's words) "had all the makings of a success... all those qualities that were just coming into fashion in 1970: violence, lurid sex, drugs." It's also steeped in the cynicism and opportunism of covert dirty tricks and undercover shenanigans behind the Iron Curtain, where national interest is lost in the private wars and personal schemes of international operatives. There's no patriotism or idealism in these spy games.

The complicated plot, in nutshell, revolves around a private team of spies and specialists subcontracted by an unnamed American intelligence outfit to retrieve a diplomatically embarrassing and potentially damaging letter. Patrick O'Neal's Charles Rone, a career Navy officer yanked out of his commission for a special mission by forces beyond his pay grade, is our point-of-view character, the new recruit learning the insidious games played in the name of counter-intelligence. But in the scheme of things he's just another player in a big, messy, tangled ensemble piece with a weird and wonderful cast in a free-for-all chase for the letter, the film's Maguffin in every sense of the term.

Richard Boone (with a bleach job and a ruddy face--the result of skin grafts from a major burn, he explains) takes the point as team leader Ward, a larger than life Texan with a good ol' boy manner and buoyant enthusiasm. He sends Rone to reunite a team of specialists: "The Highwayman" (Dean Jagger, first seen in a country vicar's garb); "Warlock" (George Sanders, found in drag performing in a gay club); "The Whore" (Nigel Green, a pimp in Mexico); and the team's old safecracker and second story man "Erector Set" (Niall MacGinnis), since laid low by arthritis. He's trained his daughter (Barbara Parkins as B.A.--no name, just the initials) to follow in his footsteps and she auditions by cracking a safe with her toes.

On the other side of the Iron Curtain is cold-blooded assassin Max Von Sydow (with suitably subtle menace behind his mask of a determined face), his equally compromised and emotionally tortured wife Bibi Anderson (Sydow's frequent co-star in Ingmar Bergman dramas) and high-ranking Soviet officer Orson Welles, whose own power and position depends on keeping his secret dealings suppressed. As if that isn't enough, dead agents and old intelligence ties become intricately entwined with the motivations and endgames of certain players in this ruthless chess match.

This is hardly the evil authoritarian empire versus the principled honesty of our democratic heroes. The colorful figures and their elaborate schemes (involving extortion, seduction, prostitution and the drug trade) is like James Bond by way of Mission: Impossible in the unforgiving culture of international espionage of John Le Carre's double agents and plots-within-plots. And it's not limited to the enemy. Rone isn't requested for special assignment, he's pressured into service by having his Naval commission revoked. Huston, in a single scene as a Navy Admiral, offers the only judgment on such behavior as he sends Rone to the intelligence wolves with utter disgust. Given that Rone's partners are mercenary operatives driven by money, the outrage isn't misplaced.

The Kremlin Letter crams an exceedingly complicated plot and complex set of relationships into a two-hour film, driving it through the exposition and plot twists with a momentum that suggests these details are secondary to the cold-blooded plotting and cruel shenanigans on display. Not that Huston rushes the scenes. The disgust with which Huston the actor sends O'Neal's Rone off to the intelligence wars pervades Huston's deliberate and clear-eyed direction as he watches the characters debase and humiliate their targets and themselves.

While Boone bounces on the adrenaline of a man who relishes the subterfuge and dirty tricks of this kind of espionage, Sanders is perfectly cool as the wry gay blackmailer insinuating himself into the Russian homosexual underground (he calmly knits as he makes his progress reports) and MacGinnis quite deliberately puts together his network of drugs and whores. These three enjoy their work a little too much, in sharp contrast to the ostensibly principled patriot O'Neal, who plays the part of a male prostitute for his part of plan, and team rookie B.A., going through the motions of seductress out of deference to her father's legacy. Our reluctant agents are also far less interesting or fun than the old pros, in part because Huston never pulls them out of their wooden restraint, especially O'Neal, who is more dour than disillusioned by the whole thing, a grimly serious stiff in a cast of sly scene stealers. It's hard to take your eyes off Boone's hearty presence or his antic performance as the man who has learned all too well that there is no moral imperative in the Cold War spy games. His performance ignites the film whenever he's on screen, giving advice and pep talks or planning the next stage in the operation with a conspiratorial grin, and his energy and commitment makes him the most engaging figure in the film, even when he's doing the most dastardly things.

The cynical power games and hollow values are almost too much for the film to support and they certainly found no favor in the audiences of 1970. The Kremlin Letter was a critical and financial failure for Huston in the midst of the driest period of his career, coming after Sinful Davey and A Walk with Love and Death and before Fat City--now considered one of his best but a box-office flop at the time--and The Mackintosh Man. It hasn't so much been redeemed with time as recognized as quintessential Huston: a motley gang of eccentrics and specialists, a quest in search of a certain grail, a culture of betrayal where human life as a disposable commodity, and a perfectly Hustonian twist that makes all their sacrifices meaningless.

The DVD debut of The Kremlin Letter is also the debut release of the label Twilight Time. The creation of Warner Bros. veteran Brian Jamieson and filmmaker/music restoration specialist Nick Redman, the label is slated to release one disc a month, all from the 20th Century Fox catalogue and using Fox masters, all in limited edition runs of 3,000 units. These are not DVD-R releases but pressed DVDs. The widescreen master for The Kremlin Letter is quite good, clean with strong, not overly-bright color (much of the film takes place in the gloom of a Moscow winter, with Helsinki standing in for Russia). Redman was also instrumental in Twentieth Century Fox's series of limited edition soundtracks and this supplement continues that legacy of honoring film scores by spotlighting Robert Drasnin's score in a music-only audio option, the sole DVD supplement. There is also an illustrated 8-page booklet with a general but well-written essay on the backstory of the film by Julie Kirgo, who previously collaborated with Redman on his documentary Becoming John Ford.

For more information about The Kremlin Letter, visit Twilight Time Video.

by Sean Axmaker
The Kremlin Letter - An All-Star Cast Is Featured In John Huston's The Kremlin Letter

The Kremlin Letter - An All-Star Cast is Featured in John Huston's THE KREMLIN LETTER

The debut release from Twilight Time, a new DVD label featuring limited run releases of select titles from the 20th Century Fox library, is a sprawling, globetrotting John Huston espionage thriller from 1970. Made in the wake of a spy movie boom, as the flamboyant James Bond fantasies gave way to disillusioned John Le Carre dramas and grim Cold War adventures like Alfred Hitchcock's Torn Curtain and Topaz, The Kremlin Letter is adapted from a from a twisty best-seller by Noel Behn that (in Huston's words) "had all the makings of a success... all those qualities that were just coming into fashion in 1970: violence, lurid sex, drugs." It's also steeped in the cynicism and opportunism of covert dirty tricks and undercover shenanigans behind the Iron Curtain, where national interest is lost in the private wars and personal schemes of international operatives. There's no patriotism or idealism in these spy games. The complicated plot, in nutshell, revolves around a private team of spies and specialists subcontracted by an unnamed American intelligence outfit to retrieve a diplomatically embarrassing and potentially damaging letter. Patrick O'Neal's Charles Rone, a career Navy officer yanked out of his commission for a special mission by forces beyond his pay grade, is our point-of-view character, the new recruit learning the insidious games played in the name of counter-intelligence. But in the scheme of things he's just another player in a big, messy, tangled ensemble piece with a weird and wonderful cast in a free-for-all chase for the letter, the film's Maguffin in every sense of the term. Richard Boone (with a bleach job and a ruddy face--the result of skin grafts from a major burn, he explains) takes the point as team leader Ward, a larger than life Texan with a good ol' boy manner and buoyant enthusiasm. He sends Rone to reunite a team of specialists: "The Highwayman" (Dean Jagger, first seen in a country vicar's garb); "Warlock" (George Sanders, found in drag performing in a gay club); "The Whore" (Nigel Green, a pimp in Mexico); and the team's old safecracker and second story man "Erector Set" (Niall MacGinnis), since laid low by arthritis. He's trained his daughter (Barbara Parkins as B.A.--no name, just the initials) to follow in his footsteps and she auditions by cracking a safe with her toes. On the other side of the Iron Curtain is cold-blooded assassin Max Von Sydow (with suitably subtle menace behind his mask of a determined face), his equally compromised and emotionally tortured wife Bibi Anderson (Sydow's frequent co-star in Ingmar Bergman dramas) and high-ranking Soviet officer Orson Welles, whose own power and position depends on keeping his secret dealings suppressed. As if that isn't enough, dead agents and old intelligence ties become intricately entwined with the motivations and endgames of certain players in this ruthless chess match. This is hardly the evil authoritarian empire versus the principled honesty of our democratic heroes. The colorful figures and their elaborate schemes (involving extortion, seduction, prostitution and the drug trade) is like James Bond by way of Mission: Impossible in the unforgiving culture of international espionage of John Le Carre's double agents and plots-within-plots. And it's not limited to the enemy. Rone isn't requested for special assignment, he's pressured into service by having his Naval commission revoked. Huston, in a single scene as a Navy Admiral, offers the only judgment on such behavior as he sends Rone to the intelligence wolves with utter disgust. Given that Rone's partners are mercenary operatives driven by money, the outrage isn't misplaced. The Kremlin Letter crams an exceedingly complicated plot and complex set of relationships into a two-hour film, driving it through the exposition and plot twists with a momentum that suggests these details are secondary to the cold-blooded plotting and cruel shenanigans on display. Not that Huston rushes the scenes. The disgust with which Huston the actor sends O'Neal's Rone off to the intelligence wars pervades Huston's deliberate and clear-eyed direction as he watches the characters debase and humiliate their targets and themselves. While Boone bounces on the adrenaline of a man who relishes the subterfuge and dirty tricks of this kind of espionage, Sanders is perfectly cool as the wry gay blackmailer insinuating himself into the Russian homosexual underground (he calmly knits as he makes his progress reports) and MacGinnis quite deliberately puts together his network of drugs and whores. These three enjoy their work a little too much, in sharp contrast to the ostensibly principled patriot O'Neal, who plays the part of a male prostitute for his part of plan, and team rookie B.A., going through the motions of seductress out of deference to her father's legacy. Our reluctant agents are also far less interesting or fun than the old pros, in part because Huston never pulls them out of their wooden restraint, especially O'Neal, who is more dour than disillusioned by the whole thing, a grimly serious stiff in a cast of sly scene stealers. It's hard to take your eyes off Boone's hearty presence or his antic performance as the man who has learned all too well that there is no moral imperative in the Cold War spy games. His performance ignites the film whenever he's on screen, giving advice and pep talks or planning the next stage in the operation with a conspiratorial grin, and his energy and commitment makes him the most engaging figure in the film, even when he's doing the most dastardly things. The cynical power games and hollow values are almost too much for the film to support and they certainly found no favor in the audiences of 1970. The Kremlin Letter was a critical and financial failure for Huston in the midst of the driest period of his career, coming after Sinful Davey and A Walk with Love and Death and before Fat City--now considered one of his best but a box-office flop at the time--and The Mackintosh Man. It hasn't so much been redeemed with time as recognized as quintessential Huston: a motley gang of eccentrics and specialists, a quest in search of a certain grail, a culture of betrayal where human life as a disposable commodity, and a perfectly Hustonian twist that makes all their sacrifices meaningless. The DVD debut of The Kremlin Letter is also the debut release of the label Twilight Time. The creation of Warner Bros. veteran Brian Jamieson and filmmaker/music restoration specialist Nick Redman, the label is slated to release one disc a month, all from the 20th Century Fox catalogue and using Fox masters, all in limited edition runs of 3,000 units. These are not DVD-R releases but pressed DVDs. The widescreen master for The Kremlin Letter is quite good, clean with strong, not overly-bright color (much of the film takes place in the gloom of a Moscow winter, with Helsinki standing in for Russia). Redman was also instrumental in Twentieth Century Fox's series of limited edition soundtracks and this supplement continues that legacy of honoring film scores by spotlighting Robert Drasnin's score in a music-only audio option, the sole DVD supplement. There is also an illustrated 8-page booklet with a general but well-written essay on the backstory of the film by Julie Kirgo, who previously collaborated with Redman on his documentary Becoming John Ford. For more information about The Kremlin Letter, visit Twilight Time Video. by Sean Axmaker

The Kremlin Letter


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 entrée 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

The Kremlin Letter

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 entrée 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

Quotes

Trivia

Notes

Location scenes filmed in Rome, Mexico, New York, and Finland.

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States Winter February 2, 1970

Completed shooting June 5, 1969.

Released in United States Winter February 2, 1970