Saturday, August 20, 2022

The Kremlin Letter

A movie that's been back in the FXM rotation for a little while and that I surprisingly haven't blogged about before is The Kremlin Letter. I saw it once many years ago, and thought that perhaps I had mentioned it at some point here, but a search of the blog says no. It's going to be on FXM again tomorrow (August 21) at 9:50 AM, so, having recorded it from the recent run of showings, I sat down and watched that showing to do a post here.

The first thing I noticed is that, sadly, the opening credits are letterboxed to 2.35:1, but after the opening credits, the print goes down to the 16:9 ratio of today's television sets. After the pre-credits exposition of some sort of espionage business going on in Paris, we get to the main action. Charles Rone (Patrick O'Neal) is a US Navy officer who is called into a meeting with an admiral much above him in the military pecking order (director John Huston in a cameo). The Admrial tells Rone that Rone is being relieved of his duties because civilian intelligence needs him for some sort of super-secret mission, Rone being able to speak several languages and having other qualities suitably for the spy game. Rone is supposed to go somewhere to meet with a "Highwayman" (Dean Jagger) and his assistant Ward (Richard Boone) to find out about that mission.

Rone goes to some small town and meets the two men, who inform him that a letter was written in which the Soviets told the Americans that the Communist Chinese, having gotten the bomb, were a threat, and perhaps the US and USSR should try to work together behind the scenes to neutralize mainland China (remember that at the time the movie was released in 1970, the US still recognized Taiwan as the one China). The US responded, and it's that letter that has gone missing. Perhaps Rone could go to Moscow and get that letter.

But first, Rone is going to have to get a crew together for the mission. Those are a guy codenamed "Whore" (Nigel Green), who is now in Mexico; "Warlock" (George Sanders), in drag playing piano at a nighclub in San Francisco; and "Erector Set", who can get into safes. However, he's too old for the job, so he offers his daughter, B.A. (Barbara Parkins), whom he's trained to do the work he used to do, and is able to open safes with her feet.

Meanwhile, over in the Soviet Union, there's Kosnov (Max von Sydow), the head of Soviet intelligence, who has blackmailed one of his agents in the US. Kosnov is married to Erika (Bibi Andersson), who is on her second husband, the first having died and stashed a bunch of money in a bank in the West. Rone realizes he can use her to get at Kosnov and the other Soviets. There's also Bresnavich (Orson Welles), some sort of high-up official who also has a lot of pull. The other members of the group, along with Rone, set about getting to know various Moscovites who might be able to help them.

Unfortunately, somebody on the Soviet side has learned that these Americans are in town, and they infiltrate the ring, kidnapping BA and leading Warlock to commit suicide, which is what really tips Rone off to the fact that something is terribly wrong. Ultimately, the movie is more about who's trying to mess up the operation than it is about trying to get that letter back.

The Kremlin Letter received poor reviews on its release back in 1970, and it's not too hard to see why. The plot is convoluted and hard to follow, and in the end much of what goes on doesn't really matter. Unlike a fun James Bond movie or the other spy spoofs of the 1960s, this one takes itself too seriously and winds up being forgettable for the things for which it should be memorable, and memorable for things ancillary to the movie.

One of those memorable things is Sanders in drag; another is the movie's use of Russian. There are enough Russian characters that the use of subtitles in what is supposed to be an English-langauge movie is too much. And since almost none of them are played by actual Russians, it's easy enough to go with the old Hollywood routine of having everyone speak English. After all, nobody expects characters in movies like To Be or Not to Be or Steve McQueen's version of An Enemy of the People to speak in what would have been the characters' real language. Here, however, the scenes start off with people speaking in Russian before going into a voiceover. It reminds me of another movie, Town Without Pity, that did the same thing with German. It's an extremely distracting technique.

Still, some people think The Kremlin Letter is great stuff. So it's definitely one of those movies you might want to see and judge for yourself.

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