Kremlin Letter, The Review
John Huston's career diverged wildly between projects he was desperately in love with - The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Wise Blood, The Dead - those which he did efficiently and for the money - Key Largo, Heaven Knows Mr Allison, The List of Adrian Messenger - and ones in which he seemed to have no interest whatsoever - The Barbarian and the Geisha, Phobia, Annie. Dating from 1970, The Kremlin Letter fits firmly into the second category, with Huston largely on auto-pilot but obviously having some fun with the guest star cameos and the ridiculously convoluted plot in which a group of cynical old spies persuade a young officer to go to Russia to get hold of a letter which could, if discovered, precipitate World War Three.
The Kremlin Letter belongs to a sub-genre of the spy movie which might best be described as a reaction against the success of the Bond films. These films deliberately deglamourised the spying game and aimed to reveal it in all its squalid and sometimes unfortunately tedious reality. Some of these anti-Bond films are more successful than others - the best is almost certainly The Spy Who Came In From The Cold - and Huston's film, while a bit of a muddled mess in places, is one of the better ones. The plot doesn't quite stand up to scrutiny but what matters is the memorably chilly atmosphere which is beautifully caught by Edward Scaife's photography. This is a bleak and cruel world in which morality is hopelessly muddied by circumstance. There are a couple of particularly good set-pieces illustrating this; the first is a monologue by a surprisingly restrained Orson Welles; the second is an assassination which is shot in a way I haven't seen before with the camera staying solidly on the killer throughout as his quarry walks in and out of frame.
The weakest link in the film is Patrick O'Neal's performance as the hero. A limited actor, O'Neal has difficulty projecting any kind of emotion, which may be appropriate, but nor does he manage to interest us in the character. Fortunately, flitting around him is one of the all-time great supporting casts. There are memorable bits from all manner of familiar faces ranging from George Sanders to Nigel Green. Best of all, there is a marvellous performance from Richard Boone as a cold, sadistic killer who gets all the best lines.
Eureka's disc of The Kremlin Letter is generally very pleasing. The anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer is crisp and detailed and the colours are good. There are no problems with the mono soundtrack which serves the dialogue - and there is a lot of dialogue - very well.