John Huston

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John Russell Taylor

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There are two films yoked together in The Kremlin Letter …: the film it was apparently meant to be, and the film it actually turns out to be. The situation is not extraordinary; what is extraordinary is that both are interesting, and both in their different ways equally characteristic of their creator. There is little doubt that the film John Huston set out to make may be read in the light of the little scene he gives himself near the beginning. He is the admiral called on to discharge Patrick O'Neal … from the U.S. Navy so that he can take his place in a complicated counter-espionage manoeuvre…. O'Neal is puzzled and unhappy; the admiral is coldly furious. He sees it, quite simply, as a dereliction of duty, a failure of loyalty and, worst of all, a wilful copping out of the group. O'Neal, as far as he is concerned, has chosen to put some sort of personal whim or maybe some private loyalty in front of his loyalty to the group of which he is a part. And that is unforgivable.

It can hardly be accidental that this, on one level, is the theme of the film…. [The] whole latter part of the story may be seen as a re-examination of that subject which has so often come up in Huston's films—in We Were Strangers, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, The Asphalt Jungle: the perhaps arbitrary formation of a group to do something, idealistic or cynically commercial or downright criminal, anything which involves a group loyalty and eventually brings individual members of the team to a choice between the survival of the whole and the interests of the single member. And the answers are not always easy….

But all this seems to be taking the film rather solemnly, and indeed it is. Even if Huston meant it to be about the group, loyalty and so on, it does not come out quite that way. Like a painting in which the painter has changed his mind about the design after the first sketch, The Kremlin Letter occasionally lets us glimpse an original intention showing through. But the final design is very different. The finished film bears about the same relationship to We Were Strangers that Beat the Devil does to The Maltese Falcon: mocking, fantasising, taking cool pleasure in sheer throwaway virtuosity. The plot is ridiculously complicated, with so many bluffs and counterbluffs that obviously nobody is expected to follow every last in and out. Instead it provides a perfectly sufficient excuse for a rich gallery of grotesques….

No doubt, as serious people say, we should expect more of Huston. But even at his most casual, as in Sinful Davy, he does have the gift of making film-making look as though he enjoys it, of being so prodigal of invention that it doesn't matter if we don't care for one or two of his ideas—he's got a million of them. The Kremlin Letter comes at you in a breathless rush, and carries you off on a switchback course of comedy, satire, irony and deeper meaning. Even if we forget the meaning and concentrate on the fun—as Huston himself has done for long stretches—the eventful trip through Hustonland should leave us with little cause for complaint.

John Russell Taylor, "Film Reviews: 'The Kremlin Letter'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1970 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 39, No. 4, Autumn, 1970, p. 220.

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