John Huston’s The Kremlin Letter (1970) is a sordid, convoluted tangle, and possibly one of the genre’s most cynical films — which is really saying something! Patrick O’Neal stars as Charles Rone, a Navy officer gifted with total recall. His exceptional memory gets him recruited into a top secret group of operatives, led by shifty good old boy Ward (Richard Boone). The mission: travel behind the Iron Curtain into the heart of Russia to retrieve a highly sensitive document implicating US-Soviet complicity in a plot against China. The team is composed of an old school mastermind (Dean Jagger), a gleefully seedy pimp (Nigel Green), a degenerate homosexual blackmailer (George Sanders), and a seductive safecracker (Barbara Parkins). Together they infiltrate the frigid capital of the USSR to execute their impossible mission, using every dirty trick at their disposal. But as events chaotically unfold, it quickly becomes clear that the mission — which entangles them with rival KGB officers — is not at all what it seems to be.
The Kremlin Letter features a highly complicated and unforgiving script, dense with backstory and details, and the proceedings move along at a brisk clip, rarely pausing to let the story come fully into focus. This is actually a good thing if you like this kind of movie; following the ruthless twists and turns of the story is an enjoyable challenge. More problematic, perhaps, is its rogue’s gallery of anti-heroes — a disreputable, dishonorable bunch. Indeed, the most sympathetic characters are the Soviet marks, particularly Colonel Kosnov (Max von Sydow) and his troubled wife Erika (Bibi Andersson). Some viewers might find it hard to get behind the nominal “good guys,” but since there’s a thematic relevance to this, I wasn’t bothered. The performances are uniformly excellent, with Andersson and Boone really standing out. Also turning up is Orson Welles, bringing formidable villainy to the table as one of the Russian intelligence chiefs.
Colorfully shot, kinetic, and visually rich, The Kremlin Letter carries off its nihilistic message with compelling artistry. I suspect its dark message might ring hollow for those not already enthusiastic about the genre, but diehard spy buffs should add this to one to the must-see list.