Saturday, January 23, 2010
The Kremlin Letter
So when I stumble across a movie that requires your attention for every second of screen time I jump at the chance. Movies with lots of information thrown your way in a short period of time can be frustrating and enjoyable at the same time. And where would this all work better because the genre framework is already established? Spy movies where betrayals, deceptions and double crosses are part of the landscape. Virtually forgotten 40 years since its release -- thanks to no DVD or VHS release -- 1970's The Kremlin Letter, directed by John Huston, is a nice little twist on the spy movie.
Released in the midst of the James Bond craze, The Kremlin Letter is basically the anti-007 in terms of action and storytelling. Huston's take is heavy on dialogue with almost no action from start to finish. Instead of action, there's tension to spare as a team of American and British agents go undercover in Moscow to accomplish a perilous mission. Countless bits of information and explanations about the setting and the characters are thrown your way without warning, forcing you to file away little bits of information in your head so a scene or a line makes sense later in the movie. With all that said, the "twist" revealed late isn't that much of a surprise -- if you're paying attention or have seen even a couple spy movie or two you'll spot it early -- but it does work because of how the twist affects the story.
In the midst of the Cold War, a single letter could tear apart the world if it falls into the wrong hands. A high-ranking American official has written a letter saying the U.S. would help the USSR in taking out China's nuclear weapons program, and the agent holding the letter turns up dead...without the letter. A new agent, Charles Rone (Patrick O'Neal), is assigned to assemble a team with the help of agents who have experience dating back to WWII. This group of American and British agents will be headed by Ward (Richard Boone) who will lead a group of specialists (Nigel Green, Dean Jagger, George Sanders, and Barbara Parkins) in hopes of getting the letter back before all-out war breaks out. Getting that letter won't be so easy though with two Russian agents, Kosnov (Max von Sydow) and Bresnavitch (Orson Welles) also involved.
Reading through that cast listing when I saw this movie on TCM's schedule, I'm not going to lie; I was a little disappointed in myself I'd never even heard of this movie...not even in passing, even a little bit. It's not a classic spy movie, but it is an above average entry. Most of that credit goes to Huston's directing and the performances he gets from this very impressive grouping of actors and actresses. With very little action, the spotlight is squarely on the cast to carry the movie. Some are in it more than others -- Jagger, Green and Sanders are criminally underused with some great eccentric characters -- but even the smaller performances leave an impression.
Never a huge star but always a reliable lead, O'Neal is the anti-007 in his portrayal of a spy. His Rone doesn't carry a gun, is a last-minute replacement for his position, and with his photographic memory and ability to remember everything told to him is a valuable member of the team. Instead of fighting his way out of a situation, Rone thinks things out before putting his life on the line, especially in a key subplot that sees him develop a relationship with von Sydow's Kosnov's wife, Erika (Bibi Andersson). As the veteran agent working with Rone, Richard Boone makes the biggest impression, and that's saying something considering the cast. His Ward is a scene-stealer, always addressing Rone as 'Nephew' with his Texan drawl, and demanding your attention every minute he's on-screen.
Their counterparts, von Sydow and Welles, have less time and development but don't waste a second. And really can you think of two better actors to play imposing, always intimidating Russian agents? Much like his role in 3 Days of the Condor, von Sydow is frightening with his steely glare, and when wasn't Welles an intimidating presence? The whole cast seems to be enjoying themselves with Green as a pimp/drug dealer, Sanders as a transvestite, and Parkins as a wet behind the ears safecracker. Raf Vallone even makes a quick appearance as an espionage teacher. They play the type of characters that could probably carry a movie on their own, but instead play supporting roles here. If I can find a copy of Noel Behn's source novel, I'll be sure to pick it up just to see if how much had to be cut for a feature film.
An interesting movie for any number of reasons, especially considering the year and time it was released in. It's hard to figure out why this little gem has been forgotten over the years (maybe it was too different from what audiences were seeing with the Bond series), but it is worth tracking down just to watch this great cast go to town with an interesting spy story. Convoluted at times but everything clears up in the end, including one last twist in the final scene.
The Kremlin Letter <----TCM clips (1970): ***/****