There is an official letter drawn up by certain figures in the American elite which will be of great interest to not only them, but the Soviets and the Chinese as well, concerning as it does all three. For the United States, their attempt at getting their hands on it before it does too much damage centres around the recruitment of ex-Navy man Charles Rone (Patrick O'Neal), who is blessed with a brilliant memory for languages and facts, and whose expulsion from the military has been orchestrated by a shadowy organisation...
But then, just about everything in The Kremlin Letter was shadowy, shady, and downright murky, in line with director and co-writer John Huston's ideas of what constituted the espionage of the Cold War and based on loose facts outlined in Noel Behn's novel. In a film that even saw its poster admitting it was well nigh impenetrable, this has seen all too many viewers throw their hands up in frustration and admit defeat, exasperatedly wondering exactly what the hell was going on here, but for others, the select few, it presented a challenge. Could you get through it without getting lost, whether it was the first, second or umpteenth time you saw it? There were rumours that it did indeed make sense.
The main sticking point seemed to be the dialogue as Huston often told instead of showed the audience what was happening, and then was not always on the level as regard to the twists and turns and double-crossings of the plot. There was a lot of talk in this, and it was easy to find yourself zoning out as yet another speech was made ostensibly to clear things up, but actually rendering them even more involved. But essentially it was the type of yarn spun on Mission: Impossible every week, except without the note of triumph that the success of those excursions would invariably end on as Peter Graves and his team toppled another dictator.
No such luck here, though, as the team leader in this, Ward (Richard Boone), sees his spies assembled from various places around the globe and sets them to work without being entirely sure whether they will escape with their lives - and we're not certain precisely how much he cares, only that with his avuncular menace he is pulling some strings to some degree of effectiveness. Time and again the theme returned to prostitution as the agents gave up their bodies and their morals for a money reward dangled in front of their noses - Nigel Green's smoothie is even named The Whore - and the bankruptcy of the characters and their sacrifice of all that was decent constituted the overwhelmingly self-disgusted tone.
Once Ward and company hit Moscow, you might be considering that this was Hollywood trying to outdo the Harry Palmer series for cynicism in the underworld of spies, but the notion of someone emerging the hero, however devalued in the circumstances, was at least something the viewer could hang onto in that. In this case, an all-star cast played for despair, as it didn't matter how far they believed they were doing the right thing, that idealism, such as it was, would be well and truly knocked out of them by the end, at times literally. While there was little wrong with most performances, with Boone stealing scenes, Orson Welles radiating intelligent cruelty and Bibi Andersson failing to lose herself in decadence to block out the hell she has landed in, two hours of this scabrous atmosphere did wear you down, and a last minute revelation that leaves the tale horribly open made The Kremlin Letter one of the biggest downers in the spy genre. You needed a stern constitution for this, and it wasn't necessarily enjoyable anyway. Music by Robert Drasnin.