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REVIEW – The Kremlin Letter (1970)

July 7, 2011

Videovista have my review of John Huston’s spectacularly misanthropic espionage thriller The Kremlin Letter.

Aside from its fantastically icy cinematography and its twisted multiculturalism, The Kremlin Letter is an extraordinary film in that it uses the noir idiom to call into question the utility and the morality of the Cold War cottage industry that was international espionage.  Again and again, Huston returns us to the idea that while there is something heroic in fighting and dying to protect one’s country, there is absolutely nothing heroic about destroying someone’s life in order to force them to give up a few useless secrets:

It is telling that Huston neither shows us the letter at the centre of the plot, nor spells out what the letter means. The letter, like any mcguffin, exists purely in order to drive the plot but, can the same not also be said for the ‘information’ sought by real spies? How can a letter ever hope to justify the racism, misogyny, homophobia and outright savagery of the spies? In truth, the letter is but a fig leaf allowing the spies to pursue old professional rivalries and line their pockets at government expense. There is no justifying what spies do… no ‘information’ is worth such savagery, particularly when this is a war in which no shots are ever fired and where military muscle is only ever for show.

Despite the failure of the post-WWII intelligence apparatus to predict either the fall of the Berlin War or the attacks of 9/11, it is still largely unheard of for someone to call into question the need for an intelligence service.  For Huston to do the same at the height of the Cold War shows not only remarkable character but also a rare amount of political and historical insight.  As unpleasant as it is, The Kremlin Letter remains an astonishing film that deserves to be considered alongside Huston’s greatest cinematic achievements.

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