John Huston’s The Kremlin Letter (1970) didn’t make much of anyone happy on its original release. The critics didn’t like it and the audience, expecting some kind of James Bond movie, were baffled and/or bored by it. For years, it’s been dismissed as one of Huston’s (many) misfires, but in reality it’s less a misfire than a seriously misunderstood one. It’s complex and morally ambiguous like Sidney J. Furie’s The Ipcress File (1965) and Ken Russell’s Billion Dollar Brain (1967)—both of which featured Michael Caine as Harry Palmer and were promoted as James Bond “for the thinking man.” But with Huston at the helm, none of those film’s stylistic flourishes are in evidence, so you’re left with a somewhat flatly directed, complex spy yarn centered around a letter (that, of course, turns out to be totally beside the point, if it exists at all) which everyone wants to get their hands on. Still, the film exerts a weird fascination in its utter complexity and duplicity, performed by a cast that makes it consistently watchable. Beyond that, there’s George Sanders as an aging drag queen—which makes it close to irresistible.
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