On arriving in Paris, KGB officer Colonel Alexei Vlassov (Yul Brynner) declares his intention to defect to the West. Which comes as no small shock to his devoted wife (Nathalie Nerval) who flies home to Russia to rejoin their sons. Initially interrogated by the French Secret Service, Vlassov is eventually handed to the CIA in Washington D.C. subject him to even more rigorous psychological probing, overseen by skeptical spy-master Allan Davies (Henry Fonda). However, seasoned British Intelligence agent Philip Boyle (Dirk Bogarde) has known Vlassov for several years. He maintains Vlassov's intentions are sincere. As an act of good faith Vlassov delivers to Davies a list of double-agents active in West Germany, France and the USA. But before the CIA can act these men are bumped off by covert assassins working for a mysterious unseen agent, identified only by a cigarette case with a distinctive snake emblem...
By the Seventies most spy films, with the exception of the enduring James Bond franchise, moved beyond the campy super-heroics that characterized Sixties genre fare. They were usurped by grittier, sober-sided tales of Cold War espionage that looked back to John Le Carré's bleak The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1965). This new low-key, ambiguous, darkly satirical style culminated in another Le Carré adaptation, the acclaimed BBC mini-series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979) later remade as a very polished film in 2011. Released in France as Le Serpent (a title drawn from the assertion that the first spy in history was the serpent that tempted Eve in the Bible), Night Flight from Moscow is in a similarly cerebral vein. Indeed it hammers home the seriousness of its subject matter with somber narration of facts, figures and minute details about the CIA that, ironically, in retrospect now seem faintly camp.
French-Armenian maestro Henri Verneuil was no slouch when it came to taut, compelling thrillers (e.g. Any Number Can Win (1963), The Sicilian Clan (1969), The Burglars (1971), Per sur la ville (1975)). Alas, for all its ambitions and fittingly ambiguous treatment of the subject matter, Night Flight from Moscow is a curiously laboured, ponderous and uninvolving viewing experience. Verneuil, who had proven his mettle with international productions before, too often loses grasp of a cluttered, unfocused plot. In one of his better later roles, Yul Brynner is an intriguing, magnetic presence but sorely under-characterized. For the most part Brynner and fellow Big Name Star Henry Fonda merely book-end the sprawling story-line. A string of vignettes unfolding in multiple languages across multiple locations bring on a host of international stars who take turns lifting the plot. Hence Farley Granger pops up as a CIA analyst. Gorgeous Virna Lisi makes a sexy one-scene cameo (to briefly counterbalance this sausage-fest) as the seeming impetus for Vlassov's defection. The great French actor Philippe Noiret shoulders his own French-language subplot as a disgraced intelligence officer trying vainly to outfox his former colleagues. On his trail is the no-less accomplished Michel Bouquet, as a sardonic spy-master who takes advantage of events to advance his own career and blithely admits he trusts no-one, not even his own family.
The film strives to paint a portrait of a world where paranoia is a way of life. It succeeds in part and, to its credit, evokes some pity for lives destroyed as result of callous manipulation by various covert organizations. However the individual subplots prove frustratingly inconclusive and at times also inconsistent. Characters disappear and reappear at random including some who meet tragic fates only to abruptly re-emerge unscathed. Even the titular serpent turns out to refer to someone entirely different from the character marked as such. Perhaps the strangest thing about the film is how despite hailing from a period in time when the public at large were highly suspicious about American intelligence activities around the world, it plays somewhat like a hagiography of the CIA. Much as The FBI Story (1959) did for another agency decades prior. On the plus side Verneuil stages one strikingly effective suspense sequence involving an assassination underwater and the photography by the great Claude Renoir, who subsequently jumped on to the James Bond franchise, is first rate. Music by Ennio Morricone employing some suitably unnerving electronic effects.