Toward the end of his life, Elia Kazan surmised that it was indeed wonderful to be a part of a business that had made The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. No doubt – but possibly not as much fun as watching its director, John Huston, paradoxically crash and burn while triumphing with his Cuckoo-for-Coco-Puffs masterpiece, 1970’s THE KREMLIN LETTER. Gaining legions of new admirers with every passing year, this Marquis de Sade take on modern international espionage is quite likely the most demented movie ever made by a Hollywood studio (20th Century-Fox) and a major director. It was a wise choice to inaugurate a limited edition line of collectable DVDs from the new label, Twilight Time. It’s a must for all lovers of the bizarre – an auteurist trap for those who can’t take their eyes off those celluloid limb-strewn highway pile-ups we’re always warned to keep away from.
Basing it on a novel by Noel Behn, Huston and frequent co-conspirator Gladys Hill concocted a cunningly sinister screenplay so confusing that one is apt to go as loony as its large array of reptilian characters. Even the poster warned, “…if you miss the first five minutes, you miss…the key to the plot.” This comprises pre-credit trivial nonsense concerning a fake Chinese decree that could trigger an all-out nuclear war; silly stuff like that. Indeed the title document is perhaps cinema’s ultimate evocation of Hitchcock’s MacGuffin; doing away with it early on is inspired. It matters about as much as Bin Laden apparently did to Bush; in essence, after the credits, it’s barely mentioned. They’ve got it – or do we actually have it?; they’re the bad guys who turn out not to be as bad as we are…who are engaged in the science of the double, triple and quadruple cross…working in cahoots with double agents, triple agents, foreign agents, retired agents, one fish/two fish/red fish/blue fish agents…To my knowledge, the only agent missing from this melee is Lew Wasserman. Hell, let the games begin – and, oh, what games!
No one in THE KREMLIN LETTER can be called ‘hero.’ No one in THE KREMLIN LETTER can be called ‘honorable’…There is no one to root for…yet everyone in the bravura cast is on view to be thoroughly savored. It’s a superb tailor-made thespian teeth gnasher insidiously designed to stroke fans of the hand-picked cast. Huston cleverly bypassed the convoluted narrative and selected a seasoned roster of terrific actors – one of the screen’s final and finest ensemble last hurrahs – and gave them a filmic wake to end all wakes. Mixing the old with the new becomes a daring test of the industry’s recent ratings system – a taunt Huston obviously relished. No one in THE KREMLIN LETTER acts out of glory – it’s all carnally motivated. Everyone is essentially a lunatic bisexual sadist – dedicated to the Maxwell House regimen of good to the last drop – be it blood or any other fluid that comes to mind.
The plethora of perks in THE KREMLIN LETTER encompasses its unbelievable rogue’s gallery. The American team is led by the mysterious Ward, who early on recruits a
young naval genius, Rone. More on them later. The architect is The Highwayman portrayed in snarling Dick Cheney fashion by Dean Jagger. What unusual secrets lay behind Jagger’s beady peepers are only partially revealed – although the biggest one may be how they got the former witch-hunting Joe McCarthy poster boy to appear in a movie with the word “Kremlin” in the title. Arthritic Niall MacGinniss, a one-time ace cracksman, has passed on his craft to his slinky daughter, B.A. (who, mercifully, though bestowed of her father’s “talents,” inherited her mother’s genes). B.A. struts her stuff in a fetching sequence where the tight leotarded-lass opens a booby-trapped safe with her toes. If this is causing you to re-read the text for plausibility reasons – be forewarned: B.A., as ably portrayed by Barbara Parkins, is the most normal person in this movie. The aptly named Whore is Nigel Green – first seen pimping a gaggle of robust cat-fighting Latinas in a Mexican barrio. “For thirty dollars you can have them all…PLUS magic mushroom,” he gleefully announces to Rone – a bargain even in 1969. Green refines his gifts by teaming up with Lila Kerdova as ho-meister Madame Sophie; their plan: forcing beauteous Russian girls into prostitution by hooking them on drugs. Topping the favorites list is George Sanders as Warlock, a crocheting drag queen, who performs nightly in a posh nellie bar. Luring unsuspecting gays into dangerous liaisons is his specialty – especially if they have artistic connections to high-ranking Communist clientele, primarily AC/DC kommissar Orson Welles. And these are the folks on our side!
The russkies are no slouches to degeneracy either. Aside from Welles, there’s Max von Sydow as Colonel Kosnov, the feared steel-mannered head of the Red gestapo; we first see him in a charming vignette where his responsibility for a Russian’s suicide causes him to address the spy’s survivors. “Kill them,” he calmly tells his cohort while staring into a cell containing the deceased’s children and mother. Checking the adjoining room reveals the dead agent’s second wife – an overcoat-cloaked Bibi Andersson. That Andersson ends up as the Colonel’s wife is yet another crazed twist; that she is also a hashish-addicted nymphomaniac is an added plus. For me, Bibi Andersson personally proved a revelation; prior to this DVD, I had not seen THE KREMLIN LETTER in years, and her appearance in this movie finally explains my strange fascination for Mika Brzezinski.
“LOOK at me!” orders country-boy honcho Ward, aka Richard Boone – daring Patrick O’Neal’s Rone to gaze upon his punim. “It is not a thing of beauty,” he adds – sloughing away his jigsaw facial plastic surgery as “…one of those post-War retread jobs.” Actually, Klaus Kinski fright wig aside, Boone pretty much looks like Boone – so there was at least one big make-up/SFX expense spared. Truthfully, if Boone hadn’t always aced every tackled role, I’d say this was his supreme moment in the sun; thus, it remains ‘the’ fantastic performance amidst an array of fantastic performances. O’Neal is likewise fairly amazing as the automaton push-me-pull-me human robot. It is through Boone that O’Neal is made Grand Mute – a hooded figure whose snap finger code work is only rivaled by a Men on Film sketch from In Living Color. These segments, which would test the credibility of a Republic serial, are double-take and perhaps even Danny Thomas spit-take worthy. Particularly notable is an interview with Sanders regarding the luring of a crucial gay informant. When “snapped” as to his trust, the reply is classic: “He loves me,” purrs Sanders, as only he can with such smug cat-who-swallowed-the-canary conviction that he almost drops a stitch.
This is also around the time Boone kidnaps a Russian’s wife and two daughters. When ordered to give up a vital apartment stronghold, the agent reneges until Boone shows him the filmed captors. Enter The Negress – Vonetta McGee as a lesbian seducer decked out in Foxy Brown attire. “…If you don’t agree,” threatens a masked Boone, “we will turn [your daughter] into the most perverted human being our minds can conceive!” Natch, the red caves at once – a typical display of KREMLIN LETTER persuasion and the birther movement’s worst nightmare. Conjugal activities aside, there really is no actual violence in the movie. When it does emerge it is subtle – and therefore all the more horrific. It is violence not for self-preservation, but for the pure pleasure of cruelty. In my fantasy role as film programmer for a Huston retrospective, this is the one I’d pair up with Annie!
For John Huston, THE KREMLIN LETTER was a project he held dear. Following a slew of disasters, including Reflections in a Golden Eye, A Walk with Love and Death and Sinful Davy, THE KREMLIN LETTER was a movie he genuinely cared about. Considered by many at the time to be washed-up, Huston dove into the screenwriting and directing chores with a passion. Upon completion, he defiantly bellowed that the picture had all the necessary elements to make a modern day success. It was brutal and honest. “I want this to be the exact opposite of a James Bond adventure.” He got his wish – it was a spy movie nobody went to see. To Huston, THE KREMLIN LETTER’s tanking so terribly in the States totally bewildered him. Not so to the wags who wrote it off as a big picture with a great supporting cast, but without a star. That wasn’t always the case. In pre-production, Steve McQueen was attached to the project, but withdrew for various reasons (not unusual for the often-perplexed actor, who nevertheless could see why such a role wouldn’t do him any good). When asked how he became the lead, Patrick O’Neal glibly shrugged, “I got McQueen’s haircut.” Hey, listen – stupider decisions have been made with less rationality by studio suits; the fact that prior to O’Neal’s signing they opted for James Coburn, lends credence to the actor’s claim.
That Fox proceeded without a “name” star was likely due to the already built sets, casting and scheduling. It’s also probable that, as an added incentive, Huston had to agree to appear in the company’s upcoming production of Myra Breckinridge – possibly more degrading than any task enacted on-screen in THE KREMLIN LETTER. Soon, however, he would be back on a roll. 1972’s Fat City would garner the director the best reviews received since Night of the Iguana, and 1975’s The Man Who Would Be King would reap huge box office receipts worldwide.
Twilight Time’s DVD of THE KREMLIN LETTER really underlines what the joy of collecting is all about. The exquisite virtually pristine 35mm anamorphic transfer at last does justice to Ted Scaife’s spectacular photography. Mirroring the actors (icy) and the theme (the Cold War) – the cinematography exudes a paintbox of frigid colors. Even the locations are cold. Having been reduced to watching pan-and-scan atrocities on TV for years, or (ironically) red scope revivals…and even fuzzy gray grainy prints…it’s so…ummm…cool…to be able to see this gem awash with awesome color and razor sharp clarity. The mono audio, a tad lower than on most releases (brainwave remedy: turn up the damn volume) is nonetheless crisp and dynamic – no sibilance as rendered in previously negligible incarnations (theatrical or bootleg). The music by Robert Drasnin must also be mentioned. Drasnin, mostly known for television, did few big screen scores. It’s an excellent effort, and makes one wish he had done more movies. My good buddy, screenwriter Ric Menello, once the cryptkeeper of the biggest soundtrack collection I had ever seen (or, more apropos, heard) often commended Drasnin’s KREMLIN score. I remember our discussing the music as far back as the late 1970s. Menello, rightfully so, likened it to early (Jerry) Goldsmith, primarily linking it to 1963’s The List of Adrian Messinger – another Huston thriller which failed to find a U.S. audience. As with all Twilight Time titles, THE KREMLIN LETTER offers the option of IST (Isolated Score Track), allowing film music buffs to access the Drasnin composition as a separate entity. Also, as with all Twilight Time platters – it’s a 3000-only limited pressing…so stop reading and start buying!
P.S.: “It’s as dangerous to be ahead of your time, as it is to be behind the times,” Huston once prophetically and sagely stated. In 1970 America, when the year’s highest grossing motion picture was Airport – a plane disaster – THE KREMLIN LETTER proved simply a plain disaster. Not so abroad.
In France, THE KREMLIN LETTER was embraced with open arms – a jubilant return to form for John Huston. Like Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry – also unsuccessful in the U.S. – THE KREMLIN LETTER reportedly enjoyed a near two-year run at a small prestigious art house. No less than acclaimed director Jean-Pierre Melville heralded the picture as “…masterly…” and saw it “…as establishing the standard for cinema.” Furthermore, Melville connived an unusual arrangement with the projectionist at one theater. After each night’s final showing, the wily filmmaker of such treasures as Le Samourai and Army of Shadows would sneak THE KREMLIN LETTER print back to his home and watch a late nocturne unspooling in his private screening room. Waxing rhapsodic, the overjoyed director would then retire for a few hours sleep – arising shortly after daybreak in order to ensure that the print be returned before the cinema opened for business. This grueling routine went on presumably for more than ten days (in America it would have been over after the first weekend). I can only wonder how delighted Melville would be with Twilight Time’s DVD – and how he could finally get a good night’s sleep.
THE KREMLIN LETTER: Color; Letterboxed [2.35:1]; 16 x 9 anamorphic; single layer.
Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment. SRP: $19.95 [Limited Edition: 3000 pressed].