*. A good movie is often a happy accident of art. You can take all the talent in the world and if it doesn’t come together in the right way then you’ve just got a mess. Why, take a look at Beat the Devil . . .
*. The Kremlin Letter is another John Huston mess. Huston thought it “had all the makings of a success,” and seen from one angle I guess it did. But as Arbogast put it, if it doesn’t jell then it isn’t aspic, and this ain’t jellin’.
*. The obvious place to start is with the script. “In retrospect it was perhaps overcomplicated,” Huston had to admit. No kidding. I honestly had no idea what was going on here, even after reading a detailed plot synopsis I found online. But the basic point is that a team of gentlemen spies (part of an old-school, extra-governmental order of such operatives) is assembled to go to Russia and retrieve a compromising letter.
*. The hero, in this film without many, is Charles Roan (Patrick O’Neal), whose super power is an eidetic memory. Also part of the team are Ward (Richard Boone), an avuncular good ol’ boy, Barbara Perkins as the daughter of a break-and-enter specialist now too arthritic to join the old group (the members of the team are all getting on in years), and a pair of fellows known as the Warlock and the Whore (George Sanders and the ubiquitous Nigel Green, respectively) who are chosen simply because they are such colourful types. Sanders in particular is introduced in drag because he’s gay, don’t you know. And we all know gay spies like to dress in drag.
*. Rounding out the cast we have Max von Sydow as a Russian counterintelligence guy, his wife Bibi Andersson, and Orson Welles as a Communist Party boss. That’s quite a cast, and they’re left totally at sea.
*. In addition to the muddle of the plot there is a huge problem with tone. On the one hand this is definitely a film that, to quote Huston biographer Jeffrey Meyers, “followed the bitter, cynical, and disillusioned tradition of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and The Ipcress File, but lacked their tight plots and convincing characters.” As Huston himself put it, “I was attracted to the story by its depravity . . . I thought the story shocking, immoral, vicious and cynical.” It is all of this. But this does not make it any more believable or authentic, at least in my book. The team of oddball agents, for example, just strike me as a random gang of eccentrics and I had trouble understanding what function any of them really served.
*. Then there is the treatment of sex. This is even uglier and less credible. As for the ugliness, I’m put in mind of the impression David Thomson had that “Huston never quite trusted women as characters.” I wonder if he even liked them. I mentioned this in my notes on The Maltese Falcon and clearly in the following thirty years Huston hadn’t mellowed in his views.
*. And so there is a gratuitous, leering catfight in the early going that plays nothing like the comparatively innocent gypsy camp scene in From Russia With Love, and a really nasty bit at the end where Andersson is roughed up that I had to wonder at the point of.
*. Aside from this crudity, none of the female characters comes across as believable. We go from the bizarre and embarrassing innocence of Barbara Perkins (“My father says that going to bed is an integral part of the job and one must be good at it. So I thought that, uh, I mean I . . .”) to the masochistic lust of Andersson (“Hit me again! kick me! kick me!”), in both cases falling for the distinctly unimpressive O’Neal, who is impersonating, quite improbably, a Russian gigolo part of the time. If you find any of this grittily realistic I’m not sure where your canons of realism were formed.
*. The weird (to give it a neutral adjective) attitude toward sex is also present in the scene where the captured Russian cracks not at the threat of his wife and youngest daughter being tortured, but at video of his older daughter being seduced by another woman. Now that’s going too far!
*. Maybe one of the stars Huston had wanted to play Roan might have saved some of this. Steve McQueen, Warren Beatty, and Robert Redford were all considered for the role. They might at least have projected some sexual heat. But perhaps they read the script and thought better.
*. It’s hard to think of any highlights. Some praise is usually given over to the photography, but I don’t think Finland standing in for Russia looks any different here than it did in Billion Dollar Brain. There’s little action, and that little is not well done. Flourishes like the rolling, unwinding ball of red yarn seem more laboured than stylish. The idea of having scenes begin being spoken in Russian and then switching into English was, at least, a curious innovation. But I can’t say it helps much. The only part of it I found myself enjoying was the confrontation between Von Sydow and Welles, which wraps up by being held by Huston for a long, silent shot that’s quite effective.
*. The film’s end is dark and despairing indeed. Despairing because even if Roan accepts his new mission it doesn’t seem likely that this will be the end of it. But at the same time it’s a punch that fails to fully land, in part because the intercut images are necessary to remind us of who the note is even talking about, and it’s unclear what Ward’s motives are. Perhaps, if I had been paying more attention, all of this would have been clearer, but as I’ve said before the biggest problem with confusing movies is that after a certain point you simply stop caring. So, instead of feeling the horror intended I only registered relief that it was over.