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The Kremlin Letter


‘…daring look at spy-craft, which predates the lifted-from-the-headlines approach of Jason Bourne…’

John Huston directing Orson Welles? It’s amazing that The Kremlin Letter is such a forgotten film. John Huston’s career was in something of a slump when he made this 1970’s espionage flop, which is no brainless Bond knock off, but an expose of counter-intelligence tactics written by Noel Behn. Huston had some great movies still in the tank, including Fat City, Wise Blood and The Dead, but The Kremlin Letter is surprising for its daring look at spy-craft, which predates the lifted-from-the-headlines approach of Jason Bourne.

In a rare lead role, Patrick O’Neal plays Charles Rone, a top agent swiftly decommissioned and trained up for a dangerous mission as a freelancer; spying was rarely a job before WWII, and Rone’s mission harks back to that strategy. Rone is on the trail of Colonel Kosnov (Max von Sydow), who is a rival of Bresnavitch (Welles) of the Soviet central Committee. The experienced Ward (Richard Boone) has the job of prepping Rone to go behind enemy lines, but the death of the man he’s replacing, The Highwayman, alerts the Russians as to a potential threat…

Huston gets plenty of globe-trotting bang for his buck in terms of locations, with Finland filling in for Moscow and lots of actual footage of NYC, Mexico and Italy circa 1969. There’s also a gallery of great support, from a furiously knitting George Sanders as The Warlock, Nigel Green, stripped to the waist and garlanded with beads as The Whore, and Nial MacGinnis as The Erector Set; one might wonder at these code-names, but Behn knew his stuff, and while The Kremlin Letter is short of helicopters and car chases, it evokes the Pinter-esque world of The Quiller Memorandum or Harry Palmer films.

The Kremlin Letter’s exhumation of late is largely through the endorsement of the great Jean Pierre Melville, who felt it was a ‘magisterial’ work on a par with Huston’s best. While it has a few nods to the late 60’s, with pot smoking and the mandatory psychedelic freak-out, this is a serious, thoughtful spy-movie from Huston, who knows how to use his cast; there’s a spicy face off here between Welles and Von Sydow that’s really one for cineastes to seek out and enjoy.


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  1. Remembered it as being considered too thoughtful for those Bond-inflated times. I saw this in Manchester on the stop-over on a bus journey from Glasgow to Torquay.

    • Now that’s exactly the kind of detail I like. Was thinking of reviewing Steal Little, Steal Big, just so I could write about viewing it at the Olympic Village in Barcelona…

  2. Completely unrelated question here.

    Is Psychic Grandma alive and a medium, or dead and a ghost? I’ve been operating under the idea that she was a ghost but someone over on Librarything said they thought she was alive and a medium.

  3. thank you so very much; I needed an A Class diversion today and wow, you delivered! What’s not to like: temerity, treachery, moral turpitude; cruelty and deceit; misdirection…. Adore Huston’s jaded views and choreography; perfect casting and locations. It was interesting that spies worked for Army counterintel (Navy had more advance spy apparatus). I looked movie up in film review book and saw an ad: if you miss the lst 5 minutes, you miss a suicide, a seduction, 2 executions, and key to the plot. I only wish it was more surreal; it was actually too real. Fabulous review that captured the essence of this great, much overlooked movie!

    • I had been totally wrongly informed that this was a dud; I guess it’s not the top of Huston’s CV, but I found this pretty rivetting once you got the hang of it. And I really didn’t see that ending coming, thought that the training scenes were no more than windowdressing, but that’s what you want from a film; at the end, you go, of course, yes, how did I not see that? Felt credibly real, not like Bond, Helm, or any of the other modish spy thrillers; soooo glad you enjoyed it!

    • Sigh. This is a good film, and you’re missing out. How will you feel when all the cool, clever people are talking about George Sanders and his knitting, and you’re sitting alone with your photographs of colanders and two tomatoes on a pan lid? Not too late to change your mind…

      • I have no issue with George and his knitting, but the trailer was SO annoying with all that screeching soundtrack going on. Also lady bashing, not so cool from my POV. It all looked like a (bad) episode of Mission Impossible. I’ll stay hot with my colander and tomoatoes.

        • Actually, you’re right, there’s some not great attitudes to women here, and I should have flagged that up. Although it seemed to me that the film is criticising that kind of behaviour, I should have put some kind of trigger warning on it. Humbled.

    • I’d hear it was a bore, but I heard wrong, really loved the climax, and the final pay off is super-bleak…

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