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March 17, 2011

The Kremlin Letter

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John Huston - 1970
Twilight Time Region 1 DVD

Even though I considered myself a dedicated cinephile, my following of John Huston's career while he was still alive was inconsistent. I missed The MacKintosh Man, and couldn't rouse myself to see Phobia. My impulse following the trailer for The Kremlin Letter was of dismissing any film that had George Sanders in drag. Even my occasional movie going buddy from N.Y.U., Michael Sragow, someone who had held Huston in higher esteem, didn't seem to be in any great hurry to see this film. According to the notes that accompany this DVD, no less than Jean-Pierre Melville described The Kremlin Letter as "magisterial". For myself, I think my initial instincts proved correct.

In a review for Rolling Stone, Sragow wrote about Huston's Victory, the film about World War II prisoners of war in a soccer match against the Germans, as taking place in an alternate universe. I felt the same way watching The Kremlin Letter. While the Cold War plot of spy versus spy is certain to feel a bit creaky after forty years, what really makes the film seem like an outdated relic is its presentation of homosexuality. The men are lacquered, mincing fairies, while the women are predatory vampires. Added to this is the billing of Vonetta McGee in the end credits as "The Negress". Maybe some of the attitudes might have been excusable with John Huston being an expatriate for about a decade, but it seems like no one bothered to bring him up to speed with the social changes happening in the U.S.

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The group of mostly second tier stars are involved in a plot revolving around the retrieval of a letter that would essential have the United States join Russia in declaring war against China. Patrick O'Neal, taking the role James Coburn turned down, plays a Naval officer turned secret agent, taken under the wing of the overly avuncular Richard Boone. Boone is particularly distracting to watch with his hair dyed platinum blonde. Joining the team of spies are George Sanders, Nigel Greeen and Barbara Parkins. One of the few high points of the film is watching a leotard clad Parkins open up a safe with the touch of her toes.

John Huston gives himself a brief role near the beginning, and his old pal, Orson Welles gets to show off his Russian accent. Most of the real acting is done by Ingmar Bergman troupers Bibi Andersson and Max Von Sydow, as a married couple, he a top Russian espionage agent, and she as his unhappy, hashish smoking wife. I've not read the novel which provided the basis for the film, but the delivery of the sex and violence is tepid. Especially after Reflection in a Golden Eye, one would assume Huston would be eager to take advantage of the new production code with the same kind of elan as peers like George Cukor and Billy Wilder.

There's one scene involving Mexican whores in a group catfight. Huston probably shot it as an excuse to get women flashing their panties on film. It's the kind of scene that Andrew Sarris complained about in discussing Huston in The American Cinema, pointing to Sam Jaffe viewing the jitterbugging kids in The Asphalt Jungle and Ava Gardner's two dancing boys in Night of the Iguana. It's the kind of scene that shows Huston giving in to his worst impulses as a filmmaker, as if he wanted to prove to everyone that Sarris was indeed right about claiming that Huston was doing nothing more than coasting on his reputation. And I will appreciate it if someone could clue me in on what Jean-Pierre Melville saw that I've missed in this "red" Letter.

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Posted by peter at March 17, 2011 02:21 PM


I like this film much better than you do - not least for its acting ensemble (Huston was always a great ensemble director). The scene in which Richard Boone's character gleefully dispatches one of the film's female leads is among the most chilling I have ever seen. It's a decadent film about a decadent world.

Posted by: C. Jerry at March 18, 2011 07:05 PM

Boy, Pauline Kael savaged this. Caught a few minutes on TCM -- lots of amorality. Huston is a strange director, one I respect but don't like.

Posted by: christian at March 19, 2011 03:46 PM