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.