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.

1987 Ten Best Movies

Anjelica Huston, The Dead

It doesn’t stick in the mind as a notable year, and I have a difficult time coming up with a defining #1 movie. The giddiest and and newest moviegoing experience I had during the calendar year 1987 was Sherman’s March, but IMDb reminds me that this was technically a 1986 release, so I will dutifully stick it somewhere in that already-published list. 1987 had its share of Eighties bloat; the box office was topped by Three Men and a Baby, Beverly Hills Cop II, and Fatal Attraction. The year’s odder phenomena included Patrick Dempsey and Sally Kirkland and Million Dollar Mystery.

And yet the list of decent movies goes on and on. The three films at the top of my inventory share different qualities: The Dead is purified and honed to essentials, Wings of Desire is large and shaggy, Hope and Glory is old-fashioned but clear-eyed. Tip it toward John Huston’s final film, and its chronicle of ritual closed by a climactic stab of passion. The ten best movies of 1987:

1. The Dead (John Huston)

2. Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders)

3. Hope and Glory (John Boorman)

4. Boyfriends and Girlfriends (Eric Rohmer)

5. Mauvais Sang (Leos Carax)

6. Empire of the Sun (Steven Spielberg)

7. Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick)

8. Where is the Friend’s Home? (Abbas Kiarostami)

9. High Tide (Gillian Armstrong)

10. Near Dark (Kathryn Bigelow)

But there’s a whole bunch of movies that could claim a spot in the lower rungs there: The Last Emperor, which won the Oscar and is a spellbinding experience in its long form, with all of Bertolucci’s idiosyncrasies thriving in the big-canvas setting; Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, Todd Haynes’ Barbie-doll-acted biopic, which is legally unavailable; Radio Days, Woody Allen’s warm period picture; RoboCop (Verhoeven); The Belly of an Architect, a Greenaway movie given some human presence by Brian Dennehy; Withnail & I (Bruce Robinson) and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (Frears), representing a moment in British film. Movies that maintained a Mankiewicz-level appreciation of words were Moonstruck (Jewison), Broadcast News (James L. Brooks), and Tin Men (Levinson), all marvelous entertainments. Cry of the Owl is a superb offering from Claude Chabrol, and Pelle the Conqueror a typically excellent title from Bille August.

And it keeps going. Bill Forsyth’s Housekeeping and Fred Schepisi’s Roxanne, very different pictures but both fine studies of place. The hyper comedy of Raising Arizona (the Coens) -it was a great year for Holly Hunter – and Evil Dead II (Raimi). The passions of White of the Eye (Donald Cammell) and Paul Cox’s offbeat approach to Van Gogh, Vincent. British literary films of very different tones, Prick Up Your Ears (Frears) and 84 Charing Cross Road (David Jones). De Palma’s Untouchables, Roger Donaldson’s No Way Out, and John Hughes’ Planes, Trains, and Automobiles delivered the goods for a mainstream audience; Elaine May’s Ishtar did not, but it’s a funny movie anyway.

In the realm of respectable foreign titles, Babette’s Feast (Gabriel Axel) and Au revoir les enfants (Malle) were not only respectable, but very good. House of Games made a tidy directing debut for David Mamet, and Born in East L.A. an unexpectedly humane and warm-hearted one for Cheech Marin. Barbet Schroeder’s Bukowski-infused Barfly was one of those last moments where you thought Mickey Rourke was still going to be a great actor for his times, and John Sayles’ Matewan introduced Chris Cooper to his hard-working career.

Fun couples: John Malkovich and Ann Magnuson in Susan Seidelman’s Making Mr. Right; Steve Guttenberg and Isabelle Huppert in Curtis Hanson’s Bedroom Window (still my vote for weirdest movie pairing); and Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello in Lyndall Hobbs’ Back to the Beach (a very amusing film, actually).

There are more, but one must stop somewhere. 1987, you stand as a rebuke to the “Eighties Suck” attitude sometimes forwarded on this website. All apologies.