Unlike many big name Hollywood auteurs of the past who tend to ease off in their twilight years, the actor, writer and director John Huston, who, during his forty year career oversaw such instantly recognisable titles as “The Maltese Falcon” (1941), “The African Queen” (1951) and “The Misfits” (1961), continued regularly to direct, write and star in a relentless flow of projects right up until the year of his death (when he adapted James Joyce’s short story “The Dead” in 1987). Consequently, there were more than a few works in the Huston filmography that seemed to fall by the wayside commercially and have lapsed into obscurity and critical neglect in the years since their original release, often with a thoroughness that seems in reverse proportion to the amount by which the acknowledged classics have been universally acclaimed in their time. “The Kremlin Letter” (1970) is a good example of one such work; although it’s found its champions over the years, including French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville, there’s been little critical commentary and no real visibility for the film in recent times. Eureka Entertainment’s UK DVD release reveals a work that boasts all the hallmarks of a prestigious contemporary spy thriller, displaying the glossy look of a James Bond epic from the period, shot in scope ratio and boasting a lengthy international cast list full of stellar acting alumni along with some respected Hollywood heavyweights to boot; the novel by Noel Behn, from which the screenplay was faithfully adapted, also sounds like it would have been a fairly high profile airport sell-through bestseller in its day … yet who remembers the film now?
In truth, “The Kremlin Letter” feels like something of a compromised piece of work which attempts to broker an uneasy truce between opposite and opposing ends of a spectrum of approaches to the subject of espionage current in the late-sixties. The film embraces the jet set globe-trotting image of heightened glamour and, to a degree, pop art sophistication that defines the glossy James Bond series - which had been produced by EON Productions since 1963, and revels in Edward Scaife’s luxurious scope cinematography as characters are seen traipsing round the world in service of a complicated plot that moves from Paris to New York and from Mexico to Moscow (a snow-bound Helsinki doubling for the Soviet capital), setting much of its action in a series of sumptuous locations -- always elegantly photographed and artfully framed -- such as Parisian museums or baroque Russian townhouses.
But there’s much more of a nard-nosed attitude evident from the content of the narrative and in the cold-hearted amorality at the heart of a piece which brings to mind the more serious tone of the fiction of John le Carré and Len Deighton when they set themselves to dispassionately anatomising the twilight world of the spy. Events unfold here at an evenly paced canter rather than with dynamic action-packed Bondian set-pieces, and the reality of the film’s abstrusely intricate, labyrinthine plotting means that even the most attentive viewer might struggle to keep track of who among the rather sprawling cast of characters is meant to be double crossing whom at any one moment. By the time the recondite plot finally digs a barbed hook into the viewer’s psyche it’s to prise open a chilly and unforgiving core of cynicism which is a long way from the upbeat masculine culture of sturdy dependable heroism represented in the more popularist spy fiction of the day. Could one imagine Danger Man John Drake or even the bed-hopping Bond ever allowing themselves to be pimped out to a Soviet official’s wife as a male prostitute during the course of undertaking their undercover duties, as charisma-free lead Patrick O’Neil must do midway through this movie, for instance? The film might present itself on the surface as a lush, visually splendid, colourful crowd pleaser but the morality, motivations and actions of all of its characters prove never less than murky in the extreme.
There is though, also more than a hint of Hitchcock in Huston’s very classical approach to the genre. The title, “The Kremlin Letter” actually refers to what is really a classic Macguffin device for generating a suspense plot: an incriminating diplomatic letter, we’re told, which could spark a war between the U.S. and China should the crack team of freelance spies who’ve been assigned to locate it and bring it back home fail in their mission. We never ever actually see this piece of paper, but it provides the motivation for everything that subsequently transpires and acts as a convenient diversion for characters that turn out also to have other motives. The Hitchcock method is referenced again when Huston pops up in a cameo playing Patrick O’Neil's commanding officer in the Navy. Later Orson Wells will appear as the Chief Soviet spymaster: it’s almost as though Huston is deliberately paralleling the actor’s role with that of the spy in this movie, giving all the string-pulling authority roles to famous Hollywood directors!
The Cold War thrillers that were produced by Hitchcock himself during this same period are probably some of his least remembered and under-appreciated works; although both “Torn Curtain” and “Topaz” have their moments, the Hitchcock formula generally struggles to cope with the moral ambiguities of Cold War politics. Huston’s film starts out in much the same way though, modelled on a typical Hitchcock-style set-up: Patrick O’Neil is the naval Intelligence officer who finds himself commandeered by the CIA into joining an eccentric group of independent rogue agents on a dangerous mission undercover in Moscow. Charles Rone has been brought in on the job, against his will, because of his photographic memory; he's a replacement for the equivalent member of the original team, who’s apparently since died of natural causes.
First though, he finds himself being sent all around the world to reassemble the old team for his new boss, The Highwayman (the head of this off-the-books group of veteran agents, whose methods are far more ruthless and unconventional than those of the modern day ‘diplomatic’ style of spy), each of whom go by their own outlandish code name: In Acapulco there’s Lord Ashley’s Whore (Nigel Green), a drug dealer whose speciality is pin-pointing weaknesses in the character of an assigned target; in San Francisco he meets up with The Warlock (George Sanders) a nightclub drag act (and the sight of respected, elderly Hollywood star Sanders in full drag is not one you’ll forget in a hurry!) who formerly specialised in blackmailing homosexual enemy agents through entrapment plots! Meanwhile in Chicago, Rone encounters the beautiful B.A., the safecracking daughter of a former team member (Barbara Parkin), and brings her back to base instead of her father, who is now too old and arthritic for the job.
Together with the backslapping, folksy but utterly sociopathic Ward (Richard Boone), the team set out for Moscow where they’re destined to engage in a complicated war of brinkmanship and dirty tricks with Soviet counter intelligence agents and central committee members who all have complex competing interests in the outcome of the mission. Orson Wells is the top Soviet official who was apparently once involved in some sort of art smuggling scam with Polyakov - the dead intelligence agent who was originally meant to have delivered the Kremlin letter into American hands. Max von Sydow plays Colonel Kosnov, the ruthless spy hunter who has been responsible for the death of many a foreign agent, including Polyakov himself. Bibi Anderson, von Sydow’s co-star in several classic Ingmar Bergman films, plays Erika, the former wife of the dead agent who has since become romantically involved with Kosnov, unaware of his hand in Polyakov’s death despite the fact that she was herself acting as a soviet agent for Kosnov, marrying Polyakov to keep tabs on him for Moscow.
The film’s early nods to Hitchcock, Bond and even to the pop art spy-fi aesthetics of “The Avengers” and “Danger Diabolik” (B.A can open a safe with her bare feet and goes on rooftop bugging missions dressed in a skin-tight, all-white cat suit, a la Mrs Peel, and a stylish mask aping the fetishistic fashion of the Italian comic-book super-criminal immortalised in Mario Bava’s campy film version) soon prove misleading though. This is a sour, noxious world of morally unpredictable characters despite the sumptuous visuals, and few ultimately prove themselves to be even loosely sympathetic. Rone and B.A. attempt a romantic liaison which starts up after the girl reveals she will need to lose her virginity in order to fulfil her undercover role more convincingly, but it’s stifled when both parties are forced to prostitute themselves during the course of their mission. B.A. also has to become a drug pusher in a westernised Moscow nightspot at one point. The gang take over the Moscow apartment of the Soviet Chief of Counter Intelligence (Ronald Radd – better known as David Callan’s boss, Hunter, in the first series of “Callan”) after kidnapping his family in New York, threatening to murder his wife and seven year-old daughter, and even setting out to ‘corrupt’ his other eighteen year-old daughter by turning her into a lesbian after their surveillance reveals she has a penchant for making friends and hanging out with African American women in her New York art class! They promise to "turn her into the most perverted human being our minds can conceive and when we're finished with her, we'll start on your other daughter and your wife."
These are supposed to be our ‘heroes’, then!
Despite Patrick O’Neil being the closest thing to a sympathetic lead the film has (although he has even less charisma than George Lazenby’s Bond), by the end he’s been so compromised by his Faustian pact with the charmingly evil Ward (Richard Boone provides by far the most memorable performance in the whole movie), and led down a path which has required him and the team to have taken part in such morally dubious acts, that by the time we take our leave of him as the film ends he’s been boxed into having to consider the prospect of committing the self-same heinous act which was used to so damn Colonel Kosnov as the film’s chief villain at the very start of the film. Perhaps that’s the point of the fiendishly opaque plotting: over the course of two hours, characters realign their political positions for self-interested reasons and their actions and motives have been rendered equally as convoluted and tangled and unfathomable as the narrative itself – so much so that any notion of good, bad, right or wrong has long since vanished in the thicket of feint and counter-feint. “The Kremlin Letter” is deliberately attractive and inviting on the surface but also purposely hard to get a handle on. The characters are all hollow and the only ones who emerge with any real identity are the ones you wouldn’t want to be trapped in a lift with. It’s not hard to see why this bleak message struggled to find an audience in 1970, the film is hard to truly love -- but it is certainly well-worth rediscovering and Eureka’s DVD, which features no extras at all but a first class 2.35:1 transfer, offers a great means of doing so.