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A Huston 'Throwaway'? I disagree...
John Reed14 January 2001
I will never forget the image of Ward whispering 'We will do anything...' as Bresnavitch's (Welles' appearance is almost a cameo; purely setup for the story) face is caught in the flicker of the projector (see the movie to understand his fear) . The 'cruelty' of the game is played out in these few moments.

The story line is simple and I won't repeat it here. I will say that from the Highwayman's exit (near the beginning) to the final revelation, the film is non-stop. George Sanders is a bonus. Not absolutely necessary to the story but certainly an amplification of the stakes involved.

Ward is the key to the story (no pun intended). Rone is drawn in for his memory. The Whore, jaded and disinterested in anything other than his immediate existence agrees to participate for money... or perhaps something else.

Remember the opening scene in Mission Impossible (Tom Cruise version)? Phelps' wife is drugged and the race is on to get the information so she can be given the antidote. Contrast this 'we're in it together' attitude with the 'I'm in it for myself' attitude of the Kremlin Letter; lots of lies and deception, but completely self-serving. Not a platitude in sight. A refreshing 'honesty' for the new millennium... from a film nearly thirty years old.

Having seen several versions including the original theatrical release, television cut and the second theatrical release I can understand the misconceptions surrounding this film.

This film is extremely violent. The violence is not the '90's variety. You aren't shown it but you feel it. Bresnavitch's fear... Rone's 'matter of fact' attitude... Ward's 'direction'... The Highwayman's' resignation...

Oh, the method for Russian/English/Russian translation must be experienced. It might not be a first but I haven't seen it in any film since.

Finally I must add that there is not one likeable character in this movie... they are all far too human.
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Misdiagnosed by critics and anthologies
dforster28 October 1998
I saw the original release (uncut) and was not disturbed by George Sanders in drag. It seems to me that this one point raised by almost all of the movie anthologies indicates that none have seen the film but only copied one person's comment. The story is clever espionage, keeps you guessing, and keeps your interest. I do not want to say anything else about the story for it will spoil it for those who have not seen it. The performances are all strong and the graphic portrayal may have been too much for the critics. If you want to sense the power and fear of espionage, this is the film to see. There is no holding back. Even the great one, "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold", does not push the cruelty of the spy game as far as this one does. I wish we could get some interest going so that this film will be released on video. I would like to revisit this unique spy film.
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The gold standard for its genre.
SquirePM26 July 1999
The Kremlin Letter is the most intense spy drama, with the tightest script and the very best characterizations ever to appear in this peculiarly appealing genre.

John Huston (who plays one scene himself, masterfully) somehow assembled the incredible cast, which reads like a who's who of its time. This was one of the great Nigel Green's last roles, and his performance is typical of all the others in the cast, smooth and riveting.

Barbara Parkins is at her peak, and is more alluring than you would believe. Much hotter than you've ever seen her. Wow.

Critics say this movie is slow and hard to follow. Perhaps they watched it at a cocktail party. It keeps you on your toes and you do have to pay attention, but that's how a good spy movie should be. This ain't James Bond Spoofs A Bad Guy!

If you like a good story filled with intrigue, double-crossing, revenge, sudden deadly action, plot twists and just plain evil bad guys, watch The Kremlin Letter.
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nice turnout for this film at MoMA
jgepperson28 August 2006
The Museum of Modern Art in NYC is having a "Huston family" festival and they showed this film last night. Big crowd to see this film that was a flop when originally released. I had been wanting to see it for some time out of curiosity: George Sanders appears in drag as a San Francisco gay bar pianist, and Barbara Parkins has a role, three years after "Valley of the Dolls." (I love Parkins not just for the "Valley" connection. I think she's talented and beautiful and I love her voice.) I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. So much better than the stuff Hollywood cranks out today, although sometimes just as difficult to follow. There's lots of verbal exposition in the movie, and at one point I think it's even implied that the Orson Welles character is a homosexual.

The sexual politics of the film are outdated, perhaps. But, then, the political correctness of today is even more numbing.

The movie pops up on the Fox Movie Channel occasionally. Be sure to see it in letterbox.

By the way, Pauline Kael hated the movie. Funny, bitchy review in her book "Deeper Into Movies." But just because Pauline hated it, doesn't mean you will. She complains about the sound, but I didn't notice a problem. She also complains about the look of the film, but I think the verite style was intentional.

One tiny thing I thought I noticed, the old lady who is the mother of the Russian thief Barbara Parkins lives with seems to have too nice a manicure! I could be wrong. The moment flew by.
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The seedy side of spying
dkncd25 November 2007
"The Kremlin Letter" is a Cold War spy film from director John Huston. It focuses on the story of a young American agent and a team of spies that infiltrate the Soviet Union in an attempt to recover a letter compromising to the United States.

Patrick O'Neal is effective as Charles Rone, who is accepted as a spy due to his photographic memory. Also notable are Richard Boone as the genial mentor to Rone, Bibi Andersson as the desperate wife of a Soviet spy chief Kosnov and Barbara Parkins as an enchanting fellow agent. Orson Welles is solid in a minor role as a Soviet official. Veteran actor Max von Sydow has a good turn as Colonel Kosnov, a determined man with a brutal record, who organizes a "third section" of Soviet agents.

This is the seediest spy story I have seen to date. Harsh tactics are used by both the Americans and Soviets and agents are expected to compromise themselves to the fullest extent in the service of their country. The story remains interesting throughout with intrigue, duplicity and twists. The pace is slow, so this film is not recommend for those looking for a James Bond style spy thriller, but rather those looking for a John le Carré type spy story in the vein of "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold".
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Best spy flick ever
thiinkerca6 March 2003
Best spy film of the genre. It has an exceptionally high caliber of actors who, portray the coldness, ruthlessness and reality of espionage, particularly during the cold war. The premise of the film is complex in that things are not what they seem. The reality of what spies do is never depicted more coldly and as a result more negatively in what it entails and the cost it has to one's humanity. If one is interested in a movie that, even by today's standards, would not be made, because there are no 'heroes', see the best spy movie Ever.
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Average spy film about the Cold War with twists , turns and confused script
ma-cortes27 December 2005
The film concerns an ex-official called Charles Ron (Patrick O'Neal) is recruited in an underground spies ring . They must retrieve at whatever cost a letter that a Cia agent signed by error in a document which promises American assistance to Russia and attack to China if this nation gets nuclear weapon . The group is formed by a priest (Dean Jagger) , a beautiful girl (Barbara Parkins) with ability as safe-cracker , an unscrupulous man called ¨the Whore¨ (Nigel Green) , an uncanny and astute spy (Richard Boone) and even an old drag (George Sanders) . They go inside Russia to find the mysterious letter . They'll confront a cunning head of Soviet Politburó (Orson Welles) and an evil KGB agent (Max Von Sidow) whose wife (Bibbi Andersson) falls in love with the protagonist Ron .

The film has suspense , tension , emotion , mystery and specially in its final a little bit of violence . Although the picture has various ingredients for entertainment , the screenplay is confused and complex , the plot has gaps and results to be sometimes embarrassing and absurd . This movie was made and released about four years after its source novel of the same name by Noel Behn was first published in 1966 and this was the first ever adaptation for cinema of a work by Behn . This exciting picture was filmed in four countries: Finland, Italy, Mexico, and the USA ; the scenes set in Moscow were shot in Helsinki, Finland . A number of characters in this movie are known by code-names , these include "The Highwayman" (Dean Jagger); "The Whore" (Nigel Green); "The Warlock" (George Sanders); "Erector Set" (Niall MacGinnis) ; "The Negress" (Vonetta McGee); "The Priest" (Marc Lawrence); "The Dentist" (Victor Beaumont) and "The Puppet Maker" (Raf Vallone) . The film belongs to spy sub-genre developed during the cold war and its maxim representation are John LeCarre's novels adapted to cinema in various films such as: ¨The spy who came in from the cold¨ (by Martin Ritt with Richard Burton), ¨Deadly Affair¨(Sidney Lumet with Maximilian Schell) and Russia House (Fred Schepisi with Sean Connery) . The star studded casting is important with known international actors but with a blurred writing they appear acting with no sense . The film was regularly directed by John Huston (who acts in a very secondary role) . Rating : Mediocre , though entertaining .
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One of the best spy thrillers made
Doogie-205 August 1999
When this film was released it used what I thought was a new technique to convey a foreign language spoken by the characters. The film is part suspense, part thriller. Far better than any James Bond flick and by far better than the Spy Who Came in from the Cold. It keeps moving with twists to keep the viewer on his/her seat edge wondering who is who and who can be trusted. Why this hasn't been released on video is a complete mystery to me. All this time I've been thinking that every print must have been destroyed in one of the many studio archive fires a few years back.
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Mouth-watering cast, dependable director.... yet still emerges as a lifeless dud.
barnabyrudge20 May 2004
John Huston's early films included masterpieces like The Maltese Falcon, The Asphalt Jungle and Treasure of the Sierra Madre. As his career progressed, he made rather too many bad films, among them Phobia, Escape To Victory, and this incomprehensible and miserable spy opus. What is especially dismaying about The Kremlin Letter is that it features a cast to-die-for, and you come away from the film filled with bitter regret that such a great assembly of talent has amounted to so little.

U.S. Navy officer Rone (Patrick O'Neal) is enlisted to recover a government letter stolen by the Russians which contains a potentially catastrophic declaration of war between the U.S. and China. He tracks down some of his old spy buddies to help him with the mission: the Whore (Nigel Green), the Erector Set (Niall MacGinnis), Warlock (George Sanders), and other imaginatively-named spies and assassins. However, the team begin to realise that there is more to the mission than meets the eye as they are picked off one by one. Ultimately, they discover that the letter doesn't even exist and they have all been used as sacrificial pawns in a complex revenge conspiracy.

The film sounds quite interesting and exciting from its synopsis, but the handling is incredibly dull and the plot developments are extraordinarily confusing. The fantastic cast is all but wasted, mainly because none of them get the required screen time to build an interesting character. Worse still, rather than providing subtitles for the occasional foreign dialogue, Huston opts for a totally ineffective "simultaneous dubbing" effect, wherein you can hear the Russian being spoken and its English translation at precisely the same time. This deeply flawed, deeply uninteresting spy film really is one for John Huston completists only. No-one else could possibly find it a worthwhile experience.
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Very complicated and a deadly bore
som195017 April 2003
John Huston made many great movies, but I think that he failed more often than he succeeded ("Annie" is the worst, but Huston also killed "Red Badge of Courage" and "Moby Dick" on the screen). "The Kremlin Letter" has a cast of Bergman stars (Bibbi Andersson and Max von Sydow) and an international cast of actors who were good elsewhere (Lila Kedrova is the biggest disappointment to me, but she is joined by Dean Jagger, Ralf Vallone, Orson Welles, et al.) but drained of emotion here or given no character with which to work. Patrick O'Neal lacked the charisma to carry a movie or to make the audience care what happened to him. Richard Boone makes an impression as the bullying mentor, and George Sanders amidst stereotypical homosexual circles, and von Sydow was a master of coldness, but everyone else seems stranded (as in lacking direction!)

The movie has a very complicated plot (or set of plots), an international cast, some kinky sex, lots of brutality, drugs (but no rock'n roll), no visual merits and exceptionally poorly recorded sound for what must have been a big-budget production in the heyday of Cold War spy films. "Beat the Devil" and "The List of Adrian Messenger" are more entertaining Huston movies of international intrigue, but better still are Huston's films of intranational intrigue such as "The Maltese Falcon" and "The Asphalt Jungle."
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Rare,Highly Underrated Spy Story with a Great Cast
jkl76ktnak16 June 2001
This movie made a tremendous impact on me. The first 5 minutes leaves the viewer gasping in disbelief in the callousness of the spy business. The plot is intricate with many twists which the excellent cast exploit for maximum impact.For those who did not live through the cold war, this film will be a real eye opener of the type of things that went on during this period.I only hope that it will become available on video for those of us who really like this movie.
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Ahead of its time
avenuesf10 August 2001
I agree with all the positive comments and I can't remember ever seeing this get much exposure after its release. I saw this movie as a kid and was blown away by it... I expected to see a standard spy thriller, but was surprised at how grim and unusual it was. In particular, I remember it got a PG (M at the time, I think) rating, but it clearly should have been an R. I've never seen a film that showed the espionage business in such a bizarre light. Richard Boone gave a great performance, and Barbara Parkins' character was really poignant. The film got a lot of bad reviews, and I never understood why... it was definitely an original film for its time.
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A Real Sleeper...Most of the Time
kindtxgal20 June 2016
Fine cast of actors playing their parts incredibly well, particularly Orson Welles and George Sanders as a drag queen/American agent. The scene with him knitting booties is absolutely priceless, having seen him and known his work with thriller genre / Bette Davis flicks of the Golden Era of Hollywood. However, I watched this film through once, then skim-watched it again a second time trying to ascertain the plot and some of the scenes relevancy, and I just couldn't thread it all together. Too many scenes plunked in with no tie in or tie out for that matter...apparently wanting the viewer to be able to piece it all together. Which I really couldn't for the most part. And that ending! Horrendous! Catch it on FXM and save the rental wait time. It's just too steeped in a cacophony of scenes that rarely thread together in any way shape or form. And who are the folks in the masks? That is unanswered as well.
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An odd odd film...
JasparLamarCrabb20 March 2009
Warning: Spoilers
It's extremely convoluted but still worthwhile, THE KREMLIN LETTER is John Huston's take on the cold war spy thriller. A group of semi-governmental agents sneak into Russia to expose a corrupt politician and retrieve a letter that may expose one of them as a traitor. They manage to cross and double-cross each other along the way. Richard Boone and Patrick O'Neal are the head spooks and their team is an odd bunch including terminally ill Dean Jagger, safe-cracker Barbara Parkins, and Nigel Green (whose role is REALLY odd). Also in there is George Sanders as a drag queen/spy. It's a bit slow and rather turgid for its own good, but Huston is a master so the film is also extremely well made. Orson Welles is on hand as the chief Russian villain(?) as are Max von Sydow and Bibi Andersson as a kinky KGB couple. Lila Kedrova plays a duplicitious madam.
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gridoon16 January 2000
I can't believe there are four positive comments for this dud! If you're tired of the James Bond pictures and you want to try a more "adult" and mature spy film, check out "The Ipcress File", or even "The Naked Runner", with Frank Sinatra; they are far superior. "The Kremlin Letter" is poorly structured (the main hero, for example, is kept offscreen for about an hour!), nearly incomprehensible, uninvolving, talky, and loaded with so many stiff performances that you may wonder why they didn't hire some wax-museum figures instead; they'd be a lot more lively. The lead has all the charm and acting talent of George Lazenby, and Orson Welles is used for decorative puproses only; you never even understand what he's doing in the picture. The movie's only interesting moments come at the very end, when it finally manages to suggest how cruel and inhuman the world of espionage can sometimes be. And Richard Boone is the one actor who injects some life into his role. Otherwise, this is a fiasco of epic proportions.
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a mess
rupie16 December 2010
I caught this on one of the cable channels and was blown away by the cast lineup - Max von Sydow, Richard Boone, George Sanders, Dean Jagger, and - mirabile dictu - Orson Welles. What could go wrong, says I, in a Cold War intrigue drama with such a lineup, and directed by John Huston (who puts in a cameo)? As it turns out, plenty. I wondered why I had never heard of this flick, and after watching it, I realized why. The plot is incomprehensible, involving a mysterious letter that must be retrieved. It turns out that this letter, which we learn of at the beginning of the movie, is nothing more than what Hitchcock called a "McGuffin," an undefined object which gives the director an excuse to strut his stuff. In this case the "stuff" is a beautifully filmed exercise in obfuscation. It is never clear at any point who is doing what to whom. Huston got Welles to play a role, but he phones in his part in the pompous way of his later years. After a couple of hours of confusion, the ending, rather than giving us any closure (heaven forfend that a viewer might ask for closure), merely prolongs the incomprehensible. In sum, a confusing, overwrought, pretentious mess. The only upside is that it is beautifully shot. I wish I could also say that it's a pleasure to watch, but good cinematography only takes you so far. The frustration of the confusing plot kills everything. Skip it.
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Cold War spy drama is literally frozen...
moonspinner5513 November 2011
Director John Huston also co-penned this complicated adaptation of Noel Behn's acclaimed spy novel set in 1969, with a team of crack operatives skilled in counter-intelligence matters and burglary sent to Moscow to retrieve an unauthorized anti-Red Chinese letter promising US aid to Russia via the destruction of China's atomic weapons. Star-studded tale of espionage and double-crosses rarely livens up, is often crass and offensive, yet it does have a certain arrogant style which maintains interest. The early assemblage of talents for the mission is fun (though there's the usual hubbub about accepting a girl into the circle), and Patrick O'Neal is commendably non-showy in the central role of the Naval officer who is unceremoniously dropped from the military to take part in the operation. Huston's decision not to use subtitles is most interestingly handled, and the Finnish locations are convincing (if drab). Still, the brutality in the film's final third is disheartening, and the twist climax underwhelming. ** from ****
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Interesting double plot
Wright-Jon-R18 July 2008
Warning: Spoilers
I saw this movie many years ago in the theater. I remember it being basically a box office loser -- not really sure about that. But I've considered it my favorite movie for a long time.

I really like the way the movie has a double plot -- one in the action and another that takes place essentially in the dialogue -- and the way the two plots converge in the conclusion. It provides a great surprise ending, and the only movie I know of that uses a double plot in that way.

This is a John Huston film that deserves more attention than it has received.
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Not for modern, short-attention span audiences
jameselliot-15 July 2010
Warning: Spoilers
If you like machine-gun edited, absurd, comic-book nonsense like the Bourne trilogy, don't waste your time watching Kremlin Letter. It's a million light-years away compared to that kind of video-game spy flick. You have to watch every second of this film to know what's going on and use your brain to keep pace of the plot twists and turns. Richard Boone and Patrick O'Neil, two underrated actors who never gave a bad performance, are riveting and Barbara Parkins never looked more alluring. The Russian/English over dubbing has been criticized but I enjoyed the technique. I've never seen it used since. The chilling ending begged for a sequel that never happened.
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Worth Seeing For Richard Boone
ecarle17 October 2003
Mainly a TV star ("Have Gun, Will Travel"), and mainly a Western star in his movies, Richard Boone gives one of his rare contemporary film performances in "The Kremlin Letter" and just about saves the picture. His trademark moustache shaved and his dark hair bleached an alarming white-blond, Boone does a deadpan, deadly good ol' boy of a spymaster with crackel barrel charm and ice cold menace. He simply cannot read a line wrong; check out the scene near the end where he tells "hero" Patrick O'Neal that he's going to Paris. Director John Huston frames the shot to catch Boone's always expressive hand movements as Boone delivers a long speech with delightful vigor and spin.

The movie is a disappointing Huston film and really pretty awful in general, but of some historic importance. The new ratings code was in place since 1968, "R" and "X" ratings were in, older directors like Huston felt the need to sex up their movies. "The Kremlin Letter" astonishes in the depravity of its characters. Message: spying is a dirty business, with no loyalties, and anything goes: prostitution, drug pushing, kidnapping of innocents, blackmail, torture, murder.

Along with the great, underrated Boone, this was among the last films for the elegant George Sanders and the interesting Nigel Green. Along with sweet-faced, mean-voiced Dean Jagger ("White Christmas"), these actors demonstrate just how deadly an "over-the-hill-gang" of old secret agents can be.

Not a good movie, not a coherent movie, but worth seeing for: Boone, Sanders, Green, Jagger -- and Huston's desperate attempt to get sexually trendy as the New Hollywood of the 70's kicked in. Problem: hard to see. Is it even available on tape?
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Excellent job at capturing the flavor of the 50's and 60's cold war
wrw-124 August 2004
I can't believe anyone would not think this is a 4 star movie, great performances, complex plot and no "James Bond" gadgetry, this is really good stuff. The film has a grainy quality that's perfect for the time and subject matter. The characters are real, human, flawed and believable. In a time where most "thrillers" insult our basic reasoning, this presents a picture of all the human foibles that allow people to be manipulated in various fashions. Similar in feel and texture to " The Spy Who Came in From The Cold " this movie offers some unique performances from some "big names" in unusual roles. The ending is filled with some twists and turns that make this movie well worth seeing.
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TVPowers21 January 2010
An absolutely diabolical cold war spy thriller. Directed by John Huston, with a mostly all-star cast, it's offbeat, grim, brutal, sexually frank (if far from PC these days)-- and rather bloody for its time.

Patrick O'Neal seems at first glance a bit older than the Rone character should be, but a line of dialog indicates service in Korea. So perhaps this correct, and the passions he seems to elicit from the younger female characters are part of the book.

Speaking of which, it's based on the novel by Noel Behn, who had served in the real-world Army Counter-Intelligence Corps.

The print I saw on TCM was extremely crisp and clear, I didn't notice any graininess. The sound seemed fine, although the over-dubbed Russian to English bit did seem like a misstep at first.
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Great Cast And Director All There Is Here
DKosty12319 September 2016
Warning: Spoilers
I never knew how you could take John Huston directing, acting, and more and make a forgotten film? That is exactly what happens here. There is so much talent here, it just does not seem possible it could fail. It does, and in more ways than I could believe when I saw it.

Dean Jagger gets a lot of talking here but the plot is so strange that he can not even explain it. Patrick O'Neil gets a chance to explain what is going on, and he can not explain things. Richard Boone, a fine actor (Have Gun, Will Travel, & Hec Ramsey) is wasted. Welles is in the cast and wasted. The list goes on and on.

It is cold war spy stuff, but this kind of material is written better and acted better in many other films from this period. When I finished watching it, I was wondering when the movie was really going to start. After all, when I saw the credits and the cast, I thought this was gonna be great.

The fact is, no it is not. If your a fan of anyone in the cast, check it out, but otherwise avoid this movie.
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I have to watch this thing again . . .
inspectors7116 March 2016
Warning: Spoilers
because part of me wants desperately to think of John Huston's The Kremlin Letter as something like brilliant.

The other part of me suffered through a long, overly-complicated, and tedious chunk of Le Carre-ish dullness that made two hours seem like twenty.

I'd like to put the argument to rest.

What I did take away from TKL is that spying is beyond nasty, it's downright loathsome. Just imagine hooded American agents forcing a Russian intelligence officer to watch films of his 18 year old daughter being made love to by an older black woman.

No insult here to 18 year olds, black women, or lesbians, but to seduce a young woman in order to blackmail her Soviet father--who probably thinks of black people in general as a couple rungs down the evolutionary ladder and lesbians as degenerates--is pretty darned ruthless. Throw in Max Von Sydow and Orson Welles treating enemies of the state as so much clay to be manipulated, then destroyed, Richard Boone as a heartless killer with a warm-hearted chuckle, Barbara Parkins and Bibi Andersson as hopelessly damaged women in the crossfire, and about another dozen pimps and whores and elegant homosexuals and hashish-smokers and you'll long for the happier days of the couple handcuffed together in The 39 Steps.

There's a startling viciousness to The Kremlin Letter, and it isn't in the form of occasionally seeing a character beaten, sometimes to death, with the sides of hands. It's how sociopathic people become when they commit espionage. I left the movie feeling vaguely nauseated. The aforementioned blackmail, the tying off of a loose end with one character tearing open the clothing of a women, not to rape her but to terrorize her before he smashes her kidneys and crushes her windpipe, the look on Patrick O'Neal's face as he reads a note from a Soviet agent at the end of the movie--kill the seduced 18 year old, her mother, and so on and so forth, or I'll kill somebody you care about.

It's no wonder spies get shot.
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Plenty surprises, but the story suffers from director's rather fantastical worldview
paultighe-3440627 April 2018
Not terrible, this film has a number of twists, a complex plot and looks good even today.

However, it is also burdened with a rather dull narrative of long in the tooth spies, doing things their way, in a free enterprise rootin tootin western in russia. Plus it has patrick oneill in some rather implausible love scenes with much younger women. It seems to exist in a world the director wishes to live in rather than a believable one.

The ending is the best part. Devastatingly bleak
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