Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Kremlin Letter (1970)


          Before venturing into the wilds of his fantastic ’70s character pieces, director John Huston punched the clock on this turgid espionage thriller, a half-hearted effort so overstuffed with plot twists and supporting characters that it’s borderline incomprehensible. One of those murky Cold War stories in the vein of John Le Carre’s books, The Kremlin Letter dramatizes efforts by American spies to recover a controversial letter in which a U.S. official agrees to help the Russian government derail China’s nuclear ambitions. The first half of the movie depicts the convoluted process by which the Tillinger Foundation, a front for the CIA, recruits a spy with a photographic memory to lead a covert op inside Russia; next comes the spy’s campaign to build a team of specialists for the mission.
          The unanswerable questions pile up immediately: Why isn’t a properly trained spy available? Why is a newbie entrusted with recruiting accomplices? Why can’t normal channels like bribes and double agents be used to recover the letter, especially since both tools are used for other purposes throughout the movie? The Kremlin Letter never solves any of these mysteries, and one gets the impression the filmmakers were so bogged down in the convoluted plot they barely understood which scene they were shooting on any given day. So as a story, The Kremlin Letter is a complete waste.
          As quasi-sophisticated entertainment, however, it has some amusing moments. Honey-voiced Orson Welles pontificates pleasantly about politics. Bitchy All About Eve star George Sanders plays a cranky old queen, right down to a scene performed in drag. Barbara Parkins essays a sexy thief who demonstrates her skills by opening a safe with her feet while dressed in a leotard. The movie also boasts some kinkiness; Max von Sydow, at his most unnerving, plays a sadistic Russian enforcer with a soft side for his crazed wife, a pain freak who likes rough sex with gigolos. (Cinematic footnote: Playing von Sydow’s wife is Bibi Andersson, his costar in numerous Ingmar Bergman movies.)
          None of this even remotely adds up at the end, and laconic leading man Patrick O’Neal seems far too bored with the material to have much of an impact, but some scenes are quite interesting to watch. The movie’s best element, by far, is onetime Have Gun–Will Travel star Richard Boone as Ward, the amiable overlord of the American operation. Gleefully blending bloodlust and chattiness, he presents the movie’s most interesting vision of a sociopathic spook.

The Kremlin Letter: FUNKY

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