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THE KREMLIN LETTER (1970).

John Huston has directed a long list of all-time classics, but in the 1960's his reputation had dulled after duds such as THE BIBLE and SINFUL DAVEY. This complex, chilling and often-brilliant Cold War spy drama didn't help matters. Adapted from a novel by Noel Behn (and loosely based on the author's own experiences in the Army's Counterintelligence Corps), it's a surprisingly low-key endeavor, with emotions played close to the vest. In other words, the antithesis of then-popular James Bond fare. The final kiss of box-office death? Huston cast a full roster of cool but decidedly-uncommercial faces... The apparent suicide of an imprisoned Soviet traitor named Poliakoff has his captors in an uproar and a bevy of American spies in search of answers -- as well as a potentially-explosive letter written by the US and now in Russian hands, which could incite a war with Red China. Patrick O'Neal plays Navy officer Charles Rone, who's abruptly thrust into this international spy game by grizzled cloak-and-dagger veteran Ward (HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL's Richard Boone). Rone's first task is to recruit several uniquely-skilled specialists for this job. Dean Jagger is "The Highwayman" and Nigel Green is "The Whore"; in a San Francisco gay nightclub he finds "The Warlock" (George Sanders, in drag and ugly as sin); and Chicago's "Erector Set" (Niall MacGinnis) loans Rone his sexy, safe-cracking daughter (Barbara Parkins). Then it's off to Moscow via Siberia, with Rone undercover as a gigolo, in hopes of seducing Poliakoff's defection-happy widow (Bibi Andersson), and hordes of Secret Police (including Max Von Sydow's ruthless Colonel Kosnov) hot on his trail... Unfortunately, the film's casting is wildly hit-and-miss. O'Neal is out of his depth (James Coburn, who was first offered the role, would've been far more charismatic) and VALLEY OF THE DOLLS alumnus Parkins is embarrassingly flat, but Boone kicks ass as a creepy, unflinching bad-ass who's capable of anything -- even brutally killing a defenseless woman. It's also amusing to see longtime Ingmar Bergman veterans Von Sydow and Andersson reunited for these spy shenanigans, which are a far cry from THE SEVENTH SEAL. Also look for Lila Kedrova as a Moscow Madame, Orson Welles as a Russian bigwig and Vonetta McGee as a lesbian seductress referred to as "The Negress." The dense plot is full of misdirection and deceit; the dialogue is often dry and if you don't pay close attention, it's easy to get lost; plus if you're looking for cookie-cutter heroics, forget it! The US comes off looking as thuggish and sadistic as any Soviet spook -- bugging apartments, dealing drugs, procuring women, indulging in art theft and smuggling, even kidnapping a Russian's wife and teenage daughters -- while demonstrating that espionage is just a dirty, manipulative and very deadly game. Too smart and cynical for its intended audience, it's no surprise that this underrated film is still forgotten.

© 2009 by Steven Puchalski.