The Kremlin Letter (1970)


(director/writer: John Huston; screenwriter: from the novel by Noel Behn/Gladys Hill; cinematographer: Ted Scaife; editor: Russell Lloyd; music: Robert Drasnin; cast: Bibi Andersson (Erika), Richard Boone (Ward), Nigel Green (The Whore/Janis), Dean Jagger (Highwayman), Lila Kedrova (Sophie), Patrick O’Neal (Rone), Orson Welles (Bresnavitch), Max Von Sydow (Kosnov), Michael MacLiammoir (Sweet Alice), Ronald Radd (Potkin). George Sanders (Warlock), Barbara Parkins (B.A.), Anthony Chinn (Kitai); Runtime: 121; 20th Century Fox; 1970)

“A tedious effort by director and writer John Huston.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A tedious effort by director and writer John Huston. The film is adapted from the novel by Noel Behn. It’s a cumbersome cold war spy story shot as a film noir, with many plot twists and double-crosses. The fun, I suppose, is in spotting all the stars who have cameos in this star-studded cast. But the storytelling never warmed up this glacial story or made much sense — the fuzzy plot never materialized to be something worth pursuing.

The film opens as John Huston plays an admiral who is disgusted with his naval intelligence officer, Charles Rone (Patrick O’Neal), who has been removed from the service and has been requested to become part of a shady intelligence operation. An American intelligence team is sent undercover to Moscow to retrieve a letter discussing a treaty mistakenly signed of a planned attack by US and USSR forces against Red China. This comes after a million dollar reward for the document failed to get results.

The team includes an expert in drugs and prostitutes, Janis; a homosexual, Warlock; a mean-spirited violent veteran spy, Ward; a young virgin female safecracker, B.A.; and the dying leader, Highwayman, who is a protege of Sturdevant, a ruthless but efficient spy, now believed to have committed suicide.

By threatening to kill the family of a Soviet spy headquartered in New York, Potkin, the Americans get him to remain quiet while they take over his luxurious Moscow apartment. In Moscow they use sex and drugs to make contact with a former Russian double agent’s wife, Erica (Andersson), who is now living with the dreaded head of the secret police, Colonel Kosnov (Sydow). Erica was previously married to the Soviet diplomat who received the one million dollars to bring back the letter, but who mysteriously died.

But before the team can accomplish their mission, there’s a surprise raid on them by the head of the Soviet politburo, Bresnavitch (Welles). The only free surviving member is Rone, who blackmails Bresnavitch into freeing his prisoner Ward.

Before Rone can escape from the Soviet Union, there are a few more double-dealings and a revenge murder as payback for an incident that happened during WW 11. In the end, as Rone boards the plane for home, he learns that he can save the life of the poisoned B. A., but only if he executes Potkin’s family residing in New York. The film ends as Rone is left undecided on what to do.

This is a cynical tale, that veers away from the action superhero kind of spy film and favors a more cerebral approach. It aims to show how amoral, sadistic, and cruel the warring parties in the cold war could be, with both sides capable of doing the most inhuman things and how difficult it is to know who to trust in that business.