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July 2011

The Kremlin Letter

cast: Patrick O'Neal, Richard Boone, Orson Welles, and Bibi Andersson

director: John Huston

116 minutes (15) 1970
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Eureka DVD Region 2
[released 25 July]

RATING: 8/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

The Kremlin Letter

The Kremlin Letter is a film that has come in from the cold. Praised by critics but ignored by audiences, the film tanked at the box office and found itself relegated to the status of a 'lesser' Huston film, behind such timeless classics as The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre (1948), and um... Escape To Victory (1981). Since then, a devoted band of critics and film historians have eagerly been working away restoring the reputation of what is undeniably a powerful and beautifully made espionage thriller. The Kremlin Letter is a film that oozes existential misanthropy from every pore; brutal, violent and astonishingly bitter in tone and subject matter, this film looks at Cold War espionage and asks 'what is the fucking point?'

The film begins on an incredibly sour note as Charles Rone (Patrick O'Neal) is relieved of duty by his commanding officer. However, instead of expressing regret at Rone's departure or wishing him the best in his new venture, the old man tears a strip off the younger officer and tells him to get out of his sight and not come back. You see... the old man sees himself as a real patriot who has devoted his life to fighting for his country and by leaving the service to join the intelligence community, Rone is not only turning his back on the Navy but on everything that the old man stands for.

The vitriol heaped on Rone by the old officer is surprising because one of the un-stated assumptions of the espionage genre is that everything that spies do, they do for the good of their country. Nobody ever told Bond that he was no longer entitled to call himself a Commander once he hooked up with MI6. This broadside, levelled at the morality not only of the espionage community but also the glamour of the espionage genre, sets the tone for the film.

Shit-canned from the service, Rone finds his way to a funeral where he is introduced to a pair of American operatives who seem to exist on the periphery of a number of government agencies. Rone's handler Ward (Richard Boone) neatly embodies the moral confusion of this strange demimonde by presenting himself both as a world-weary cynic and as an ideologically invested gatekeeper to the world of the spies. His capacities probed and his loyalties tested, Rone is introduced to the mysteries of espionage and is re-christened with the codename 'Nephew', before he is sent off into the field to help recruit a number of other operatives. Rone's fellow team-mates include a muscular pimp known as the Whore and a sophisticated drag queen known as the Warlock. The code names and moral flexibility of these strange and colourful creatures mark them out as well and truly at home in the world of spies. A world where values are as unsure as loyalties and where spies on both sides rapidly realise that they have more in common with their opposition than they do with the inhabitants of the 'real world' they are supposed to be protecting.

The idea that the world of espionage is a bizarre demimonde with its own rules and values is hardly a new one. There is a wonderful scene in Lee Tamahori's Die Another Day (2002) where a villain turns up wearing a leotard and a bloody great sword, but nobody raises an eyebrow because she is a part of the world of espionage and the laws of that world are quite distinct from the laws that govern the rest of us. John Le Carre also riffed on this idea throughout his George Smiley novels by painting the British secret intelligence service as a club made up of ageing Oxbridge eccentrics, Whitehall mandarins and Soviet bureaucrats waging personal battles, which, though steeped in Cold War rhetoric, were ultimately all about their own personal and social problems. As Smiley himself puts it, the head of the Soviet intelligence service must ultimately fail because he does what he does out of genuine love for his country and ideological zeal... clearly only a zealot would place the interests of his country above the tittle-tattle of the gentlemen's clubs.

The Kremlin Letter paints the world of espionage not only as being more colourful than the real world but also far more savage. Indeed, once the team has been inserted into Russia and given the mission of recovering some letter, the team spread out and start to systematically defile, deprave and destroy every possible taboo. For example, in order to secure the use of a nice apartment in Russia, the team effectively debauch a Soviet official's daughter and then threaten to turn both his wife and his youngest child into lesbians if he refuses to cooperate.

From there, the team move on to setting up brothels, seducing gay people and threatening to out them, and working as drug dealers and male prostitutes who engage in rape play for fun and profit. The violence, misogyny, homophobia and racism of the agents' activities would doubtless have been quite surprising back in 1970 but in 2011 they are down right horrifying thereby amplifying Huston's message: These people are absolute and utter scum. Huston expands upon the immorality of his characters on three separate fronts:

Firstly, Huston likens the process of debriefing to confession. For example, when we first encounter the Highwayman, he is dressed as a Catholic priest and once the team is in place, they feed their information back to the group via the medium of a masked-man with perfect recall. By drawing such a close comparison between debriefing and confession, Huston is suggesting that the debriefing process is some sort of psychological crutch that allows the agents to live their lives without the burden of a guilty conscience. However, because the agents are just as despicable in their day-to-day lives as they are at work, the process of confession is nothing but a therapeutic opiate that allows evil men to do evil things and never feel bad about it. It seems entirely fair to read into this not only an indictment of the world of espionage but also of the hypocritical role of the Church in making the lives of monstrous men that much easier.

Secondly, Huston takes a hammer to the glamorous reputation of intelligence work in a wonderful scene featuring a bunch of soviet officials and their wives gossiping about spies and traitors. Suddenly, Bresnavich (Orson Welles) stands up and begins to single out the actions of his subordinate, praising the man's unflagging devotion to his country and his fearless pursuit of enemy spies. Initially, the dinner guests are most impressed by the subordinate's bravery but, in the same amiable and breezy tone, Bresnavich begins to unpack his remarks by telling the guests about how his subordinate tortured innocent men and executed children by pouring hot lead down their throats. Clearly, intelligence work is morally praise-worthy only for so long as one is completely ignorant of what that sort of work entails.

Thirdly, at a time when Cold War rhetoric was at its peak and spies were seen as guardians not only of national security but of the western way of life, Huston takes it upon himself to question the utility of the network of intelligence agencies set up after World War II. Huston can understand wanting to fight and die to protect one's country and the scene in which Rone is dressed down for becoming a spy suggests that he even sees the redemptive potential in fighting for just such a cause. War makes men do terrible things but if they do these things for the greater good then their actions might, in principle, be justified.

However, spies do not fight. They do not wear uniforms and they do not pick up a rifle in order to take lives, win ground and defend their country's borders. Instead, they sneak around in the shadows destroying lives in the pursuit of 'information' that is ultimately of dubious utility and worth. It is telling that Huston neither shows us the letter at the centre of the plot, nor spells out what the letter means. The letter, like any mcguffin, exists purely in order to drive the plot but, can the same not also be said for the 'information' sought by real spies? How can a letter ever hope to justify the racism, misogyny, homophobia and outright savagery of the spies? In truth, the letter is but a fig leaf allowing the spies to pursue old professional rivalries and line their pockets at government expense. There is no justifying what spies do... no 'information' is worth such savagery, particularly when this is a war in which no shots are ever fired and where military muscle is only ever for show.

Based on Noel Behn's first novel, The Kremlin Letter demonstrates quite how perfectly a fit the Cold War period is for the existential bleakness of noir fiction. Huston's film recreates a world in which the absolute futility of human activity is rivalled only by the absolute savagery with which such activity is undertaken. This is a world in which twin ideological suns cast precisely the sort of long shadows in which nihilism tends to grow. For Behn and Huston, the snow-covered streets of Moscow are no different to the rain-slicked foggy streets of the city by the bay. It is a world in which chaos reigns and good men are broken. The only question that remains is whether Huston's world actually possesses any good men. The film itself is deliciously ambivalent on this question as it presents Rone as something of a cypher� a man who listens and calculates but says little. By the end of the film, he has proved his sensitivity and his integrity by seeing through all of the lies and glimpsing the world as it truly is but as he stares at the piece of paper handed him by his opposition, the question remains� will he break himself upon the world like a wave or will he retreat back up the beach and leave the sandcastles of political myth intact?

The Kremlin Letter is beautifully shot and comes pregnant with recurring motifs such as the tendency of spies to meet underground or in darkened rooms that clash with the brilliant sunshine and white snow of the Russian landscape. The film also boasts some fine performances from Boone and Andersson. Boone does a wonderful job of moving seamlessly between southern bonhomie and psychotic violence without missing a beat, but it's when he sits somewhere in between these two extremes that his performance is most memorable and disquieting. Andersson also does a spectacular job of portraying a woman at the end of her tether - a woman desperate for some kind of peace who nonetheless keeps uncovering horrible things, forcing her to confront the possibility that she not only likes the chaos but deserves it too.

Huston also manages to coax a remarkably low-key performance from the magnificently hammy Welles. Rather than stealing every scene and chewing scenery with a voice like thunder, Welles is every inch the corpulent Soviet bureaucrat who grins and cleans his glasses whilst sending people to their deaths. The only bum note comes from O'Neal who was clearly miscast in a part that called not for a bored middle-aged man but for a pretty and virile young man whose fall from grace might have actually meant something. A pity as, that bizarre casting-decision aside, this is truly a wonderful and memorable piece of filmmaking that is getting a welcome release from the good folks at Eureka. I might raise a small eyebrow at the complete lack of extras (particularly as this film is something of a critical darling and there would have been no shortage of critics willing to help it find a new audience) but with a film this good it seems peevish to quibble about the little things.



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