The Kremlin Letter (The Cornfield #27)

This program note was written for a John Huston film series at the University of Washington in 1985, an evening that double-billed two Huston titles. It was on the flip side of a handout that also contained a piece I did on A Walk with Love and Death, which I began by invoking Time magazine’s famous cover question, “Is God Dead?” Being a program note, this one assumes the reader has some familiarity with the movies. (The Kremlin Letter is newly released on a long-needed DVD this month.)

The Kremlin Letter takes place in the present, but seems to exist in the same desolate, Godless world as A Walk With Love and Death. The title refers to an object that will be the reason for the quest; but we will never see it, no one in the film obtains it (apparently), and it becomes ultimately irrelevant. Chill pervades the air of the movie. It is a story of spies who never come in from the cold; the more inhuman they make themselves, the more successful their mission.

Sexual favors, for instance, are dispensed as a standard operating procedure; only the two new recruits for this mission make the slightest reference to the whoring they must do. Torture, murder, and blackmail are treated matter-of-factly, as typical ways of dealing with the enemy. “Truth can have no meaning at all, or else suddenly you’re dead,” says one character, who has just realized she’s been betrayed—and realized it because her lover has faltered for a moment in keeping his inhuman mask on. People are stripped (both literally and figuratively) throughout the film, until all that remains are the basest motives and traits.

That doesn’t sound like very much fun. And I can guarantee you that at some point you’re going to realize that the plot has become too complicated to follow. That’s okay, because more important than the plot is the overall movement of the film itself and the brilliance of individual scenes. The moments of humanity within this stark landscape are startling, such as the scene in which B.A. (Barbara Parkins) tells her lover, Rone (Patrick O’Neal), that she has rotten feelings about sleeping with a man she’s spying on—but at that moment Rone is wearing a hood and (apparently) she does not know who he is. Or the flicker of perverse passion when Erika (Bibi Andersson), the most human character in the film, draws her fingernails down the back of Rone, whose sexual attention she has purchased. Here is blood in a film in which the killings are oddly bloodless; here is passion in a world gone dead. It is indicative of Huston’s wry brand of compassion that Erika’s love for her whore is allowed to be seen as almost wholesome in this unsavory universe.

Even the most brutal of the amoral characters have levels of intricacy. Erika’s husband (Max von Sydow) is a cool butcher, and we have little reason to have sympathy for him, but in the wake of his humiliation at a dinner party and Erika’s subsequent disappearance, he appears almost forlorn. After Erika returns, his plea to her—”Come, let me hold you in my arms”—is a clumsy trial balloon released into the frigid void that surrounds them. Thanks to von Sydow’s reading, it is both an automatic response to a certain situation and a feeble attempt at connection.

Add to this the face that their conversation is probably being listened to by Ward (Richard Boone) and Rone, who would be fresh from her bed, and you’ve got a scene full of strange complexity. (Huston’s first scene of their eavesdropping is interesting: he cuts from Ward and Rone huddled around the receiver at their apartment to Erika and Kosnov passing through the similar interior of their room; for a moment, it almost looks as though Ward and Rone are actually in the same room with them—which, insidiously enough, they are.)

One of the weirdest moments precedes the murder of a main character, who enters a room expecting to meet someone. There is a stranger there, however, and the stranger explains that the expected person left a note of explanation. The main character walks over to the mantle to get it, and in so doing walks out of the frame. The camera stays on the stranger, standing in a doorway, as he slowly and carefully takes his jacket off, picks up another jacket, and slips it on. We know then that he is going to kill her. It is a very sinister way of shooting the scene—when the camera stays with him, it adds to the sense of an animal watching its prey, sadistically taking its time. It’s also—in a very strange way—almost a moment of honor for this utterly unscrupulous stranger (assuming that the letter really is from the person the main character wanted to meet, he politely allows her the opportunity to read it, just before viciously killing her). You can’t get much more unsentimental than that.

By this time in the film series, it should be apparent that Huston takes care in framing his trapped characters with visual strategies that confine them. The Kremlin Letter continues this, as doorways and windows hold people in; one man dies through a window, another dies through the window of a falling truck. In one shot from the inside of the car Rone has stolen, we see B.A. desperately trying to get to Rone (and into the car) as thugs try to hold her back. By keeping the camera in the car, Huston makes us feel Rone’s helplessness and impotence, as he can’t quite get her inside. We also feel—we do feel it, live through it, rather than intellectually appreciating it—the claustrophobic sense of the best-laid plans going awry, and we get a sense of Rone’s confusion, and his cowardice.

It is a bleak vision. If there is a God hovering over this world, He may have, as Huston suggests in his autobiography, “lost interest…it would appear that (He’s) forgotten about us entirely…It’s as though we ceased to exist as far as He’s concerned. Maybe we have.” Watching tonight’s films, it would appear that God has turned his face away from this corner of the universe. In Huston’s films, we will have to make our way through life without His assistance.