The Kremlin Letter (plot)

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The Kremlin Letter is an American spy film[1] directed by John Huston. It was released in February 1970 by 20th Century-Fox.[2] This article describes its plot.

In September 1969, high ranking intelligence operative Sweet Alice (Micheál MacLiammóir) meets with a man named Polyakov at a Paris art museum. After telling him he has seven days to recover the Kremlin Letter, Sweet Alice leaves Polyakov a cloakroom ticket for a suitcase which carries $1,000,000. A few days later, Polyakov commits suicide in a Soviet prison outside Moscow. His mother, sister and wife have also been arrested. Upon seeing the body a colonel named Kosnov coldly orders that Polyakov's mother and sister be killed, but spares his attractive young wife.

A few weeks later in Los Angeles, naval intelligence officer Charles Rone (Patrick O'Neal) is harshly told by his commanding officer (John Huston) that his commission as a lieutenant commander has been revoked without warning, seemingly at the request of a US intelligence agency. On a long distance passenger train, Sweet Alice tells Rone his naval commission was revoked on the "highest authority" and that he can have it back for the asking, but if he takes this new job instead he'll be paid at least $250,000 and maybe much more. Rone agrees to go along with it and Sweet Alice hands him a few simply coded cables, from which Rone is able to read that an intelligence operative is dead, having failed an important mission. Someone called the Highwayman has been called in to do the job in any way he pleases, for however much money he wants. However, one of the Highwayman's people has died of natural causes, which is why Rone has been called in as a replacement. Sweet Alice tells Rone the mission has been "farmed out" by the US government to a group of veteran, independent spies. Telling Rone about their background, Sweet Alice says that in the aftermath of World War II they were led by an agent named Robert Stuydevant, "a brutal, sadistic, conscienceless assassin" who was also an intelligence operative of unparalleled skill. Forsaken by all the ever more bureaucratic Western intelligence agencies following the war, Stuydevant had reportedly committed suicide in Istanbul 15 years ago, in 1954. Sweet Alice also gives Rone a suitcase to deliver to the Highwayman.

Rone makes contact with the group in a small town at his forerunner's funeral. The mission is to be carried out by a motley team of older spies, all of whom knew Stuydevant, a vanishing breed led by the hard bitten Highwayman (Dean Jagger), who is dressed as a priest, along with Ward (Richard Boone), whose cracker barrel, folksy charm overlays a deeply threatening manner along with a face bearing the scars of crudely done plastic surgery, which Ward calls "a postwar retread job." In the kitchen of a church parsonage Rone counts out the $480,000 held in the suitcase while Ward tells Rone his almost "total recall" memory is needed for their mission and strongly hints that his many other talents, such as Rone's ability to speak eight languages without an accent, will also come in handy. They send Rone to fetch the other three members of the team. In Mexico at Papanoa, a coastal village up the coast from Acapulco, Rone finds Lord Ashley's Whore, also called Janis (Nigel Green), a drug dealer and panderer with a knack for spotting human weaknesses. Unknown to Janis, Rone has orders to drug or kill Janis and bring his body back to the States alive or dead if he says no. As foreseen by the Highwayman, Janis wants nothing to do with it at first, but says he'd "go like a shot" for Stuydevant, whom he believes could never have committed suicide and "somewhere, some place, he's waiting like a lion in a thicket." Rone sways Janis with $25,000 in cash and a promise of $125,000 when Janis gets to New York. Rone then goes to San Francisco and finds the Warlock (George Sanders) in a nightclub working as a piano player done up in drag. An expert at seducing culturally sophisticated homosexuals, the Warlock is eager to be in on the mission straight off. In Chicago, Rone meets the Erector Set (Niall MacGinnis), an aging and arthritic spy who has trained his daughter B.A. (Barbara Parkins) to replace him. She is a beautiful, wholly professional thief and burglar who is so highly skilled, she can quickly crack open the combination lock of a safe with her feet while lying on her back.

When Rone walks into the Tillenger Foundation building in Manhattan with B.A., the Highwayman is not at all happy to see her: Rone had orders to bring her father. Rone finds it ever more hard to fit in with what he believes are the "mad tea party" ways the Highwayman and Ward do things. Following a confrontation with Ward in which Rone, who is clearly a highly trained and lethal expert in martial arts, quickly learns Ward could easily kill him with his bare hands, Ward tells Rone, "I don't know what they taught you in the classroom about intelligence and espionage. Everything I know, I learned on the street, but I can assure you of one thing: It has no size, no shape and no rules. At the very best it's what you least expect so you've gotta be ready for anything."

Rone and the others undergo weeks of preparation in the basement of the Tillenger Foundation, where Rone is briefed about the ruthless chief of Soviet counter-intelligence Colonel Kosnov (Max von Sydow) and his boss Bresnavitch (Orson Welles), a member of the Soviet central committee. He is also briefed about the dead Polyakov, a member of Stuydevant's independent and freewheeling team of spies after the war who, in 1955, opened an art gallery in Paris. Early in 1969, Polyakov had shown up in Washington, D.C. as a free-agent spy selling Soviet state secrets, saying his source was a high Soviet official. Although most of his friends were homosexuals, only a few months earlier Polyakov had married Erika Beck, a young, deeply troubled German prostitute and everyone who knew her said she was very much in love with Polyakov. In August, Polyakov's Soviet contact wanted proof that a meaningful deal between the USSR and the West could be done and asked for a written guarantee that the US would help the USSR destroy China's nuclear weapons capability. Ward tells Rone, "The top executive in one of the most powerful intelligence agencies in the United States government took it upon himself to write what amounted to a declaration of war against China. Polyakov was in Moscow with it the next morning." A few days later Polyakov reported from Paris that the letter had been delivered. When the governments of both the US and the UK found out about this they were very unhappy. Polyakov said he could buy the letter back for $1,000,000 but after being given the cash, wound up dead in Moscow.

In New York, the Soviet chief of counter-intelligence in the US, Captain Potkin (Ronald Radd), has found himself caught in a power struggle between his boss Colonel Kosnov and his old friend, central committee member Bresnavitch, who has made a widely publicized speech at the UN but in truth only came to New York to buy a painting. Bresnavitch asks Potkin why Kosnov has spent $2,000,000 since August looking for unknown American agents, but Potkin clumsily skirts giving a straightforward answer. When Bresnavitch starts telling Potkin about the Kremlin Letter, Potkin asks him not to, whereupon Bresnavitch orders a clearly nervous Potkin to inform him of all intelligence gathered by his department at least a day before giving it to Kosnov. Meanwhile the Highwayman's team needs a place to stay when they get to Moscow. They swoop in and kidnap Potkin along with his wife Dasha and youngest daughter Elena, who is seven. They don't think Potkin has any "exploitable vices" so, wearing hoods, they show him videotape recordings of Dasha and Elena tearfully begging to be spared and then another, of Potkin's eighteen-year-old daughter Sonia, "her father's pet," being seduced by a woman they have hired for the task. Ward threatens to "turn her into the most perverted human being our minds can conceive and when we're finished with her, we'll start on your other daughter and your wife." He also tells Potkin that any files on US agents he doesn't have, they'll give him. Potkin, one of Beria's former executioners, tearfully agrees to let them use his seldom lived-in Moscow apartment.

The Highwayman, who has terminal lung cancer, gets into the USSR on an icebreaker which has snuck across the Kara Sea under cover of a snowstorm. He then waylays a Russian truck in the snowy wilderness near Vorkuta, north of the arctic circle. With a frozen corpse brought from the US on the seat beside him, he commits suicide by driving the truck off a cliff, a diversionary tactic meant to mislead the Soviets. In Moscow under Ward's leadership, the others begin looking for Polyakov's contact. As they skillfully wend their ways through the labyrinths of Moscow's art circles, black markets and vice-ridden underworld, they gather much information through sundry threads which one way or another weave into the highest levels of the Soviet establishment. Rone's main job is to be the "grand mute" who, wearing a hood and heavy clothes to hide his identity, listens to and memorizes the reports given by each member of the group.

Meanwhile the Soviets find the wreckage of the truck in Siberia and identify the Highwayman's body. Using files Potkin has been duped into sending to Moscow, they think the other corpse belonged to a much younger agent sent to replace Polyakov: Charles Rone.

Janis is posing (and doing brisk business as) a drug dealer and panderer from Prague, Czechoslovakia. Late one night at a trendy Moscow café with blaring Western pop music and dancing, Janis happens to spot Colonel Kosnov, whom he knows on sight from many years before. Janis watches as Kosnov pulls a happily partying, fetching blonde girl out of the club. At a "grand mute" meeting the next day Janis tells how, after Kosnov and the girl left, he asked about her and was startled to hear she is Erika Beck (Bibi Andersson), Polyakov's widow, who had gone there often with Polyakov. Everyone had thought she was "dead and buried until last night."

With her keen cat burglar skills, B.A. plants a bug in the bedroom of Kosnov's house. Rone and Ward thus hear Erika nagging Kosnov to take her on holiday. When he says something has come up but can't tell her what, she hints that if they were married, he could tell her things, like Polyakov did. This is news to Kosnov and Erika says she lied to him about that before. Rone and Ward listen bemused as she laughs and takes Kosnov's mind off the topic altogether.

A few days later Rone and Ward listen as Kosnov and Erika bicker about a dinner party to be held that night at Bresnavitch's home for high ranking Soviet officials and their wives. Erika wants to go out to a nightclub aftwards. Kosnov reminds Erika about "the story" he wants her to tell the guests and warns her not to drink too much.

At a "grand mute" meeting that afternoon Janis tells Rone about a Chinese named "the Kitai" (meaning China in Russian) with whom he has gone into partnership. The Kitai (Anthony Chinn) works in a pharmaceutical lab and is aware of high ranking Soviet officials who in the past have bought addictive drugs, Bresnavitch among them. What is more, the Kitai has asked Janis if he has any Czechoslovakian state secrets for sale. Janis gleefully tells a hooded Rone, "I'd say he's in the same business as we are!"

At the dinner party there is a toast to the newlyweds Kosnov and Erika. One of the wives has heard Erika was Kosnov's agent in Paris. Erika, under Kosnov's wary glances, cheerfully says she worked for Kosnov as a Soviet agent in Paris and married Polyakov as part of the investigation. Erika carries on, telling the guests that although Soviet counter-intelligence had heard Polnyakov was coming to Moscow to make contact with a high Soviet official who wanted to make contact with the west, he had come only so Erika could meet his mother and sister (the two Kosnov had ordered killed after Polyakov's suicide). Bresnavitch shifts in his chair as he hears this. After dinner, when the men stay at the table alone, Bresnavitch tells Kosnov there is evidence the second corpse found in Siberia may already have been dead and frozen when the truck crashed. The men gather for brandy with their wives in Bresnavitch's salon, which is bedecked with valuable paintings. Bresnavitch taunts Erika with a tale of her husband Kosnov's utter brutality, ending it with how Kosnov tortured and drove her first husband Polyakov to suicide. Erika, unable to handle this, flees the party in despair and makes her way to the trendy café, where she asks for "something to smoke" and "a man." As she smokes hashish and listens to music in a bedroom with a few of Janis' giggling young prostitutes, he brings her Rone, posing as a well-dressed male prostitute who calls himself "Yorgi." Although Erika at first tries to abuse him, then asks him to kill her with a knife she finds in his pocket, she swiftly falls in love with "Yorgi."

The brutal Colonel Kosnov is hopelessly, almost childishly in love with his new wife Erika and is desperately afraid she does not love him. When Erika gets back home she is cold to him and among other things, tells Kosnov that Bresnavitch hates him. Kosnov breaks down and in a moment of weakness, he tells Erika about his long-running power struggle with Bresnavitch. In the early 1950s, Bresnavitch had wanted to replace Kosnov with the brilliant and ruthless Robert Stuydevant. Following the older ways of spycraft, Kosnov and Stuydevant had been both rivals and friends back then, allowing each other to operate more or less freely. Needing to do something "spectacular" to save his job, Kosnov betrayed Stuydevant, torturing and killing many of Stuydevant's friends.

At a "grand mute" meeting the Warlock deftly knits red bed socks whilst telling how he is now living with Rudolph, a meek Soviet art curator who was Polyakov's lover for a few months three years ago. Back then, Rudolph's job was to catalog artwork looted in France and Italy by the Germans during World War Two and later confiscated by the Soviets. What the Warlock has to say makes it clear Polyakov used Rudolph only to meet central committee member Bresnavitch and that since then, Polyakov had been helping Bresnavitch smuggle artwork out of the USSR. Only four months earlier however, a very frightened Polyakov had shown up at Rudolphs's home, saying he had fallen out with Bresnavitch. When Rone tells Ward about all this, Ward says he is going to Paris, where he will look into art galleries.

Erika tells "Yorgi" she wants to flee with him to the West. Rone, playing his "Yorgi" role to the hilt, asks what they'll live on once they get there. She says her first husband was rich, the money is still in a Tangiers bank, enough for her and "Yorgi" to live happily for the rest of their lives and Kosnov doesn't know anything about it. Wanting to keep "Yorgi" to herself and away from his women customers, Erika tells him they can use an apartment belonging to Kosnov's mother, who will be away for a month. However, by now Rone has fallen deeply in love with B.A., who has found cover in a life of crime and prostitution with a young, untalented but charming thief named Mikhail.

Meanwhile Captain Potkin comes back to Moscow and in a panic, tells a startled (and somewhat bemused) Bresnavitch about the American agents in his apartment. Getting there for another "grand mute" meeting, the Warlock kills himself by jumping off a balconey moments before his arrest, which warns Rone off. Rone goes to the brothel where Janis has been staying. Janis' pandering partner Sophie (Lila Kedrova) tells Rone that Janis was arrested by the secret police a half hour earlier. Sophie says at first she thought it was a raid, but they didn't bother with her or the girls, only Janis. Rone asks her if Janis had a gun and Sophie says the police found one in his things (which Rone knows means Janis will likely be interrogated very harshly). Rone then tries to send a warning to B.A. not to make her meeting with the "grand mute" that afternoon. Worried she won't get it, Rone steals a car (killing its driver) and spots B.A. on the street walking to the meeting but the secret police drag her away from the car as she shouts, "Save yourself!" and Rone flees.

With Ward away and drawing from the knowledge he has gathered as "grand mute" along with a strong hunch, Rone visits the Kitai at his office in the pharmaceutical lab. Behaving as if he knows everything, Rone tells the Kitai that in September a man named Polyakov put a letter up for sale, that two parties were interested, the Chinese and a member of the central committee, that it would be sold to the highest bidder and that the Kitai had handled its purchase and delivery. The Kitai says he doesn't know what Rone is talking about, but Rone says he thinks the Kitai does know, tells him to find out if the letter can be bought back and that he'll come again tomorrow. As Rone gets up to leave, the Kitai calls out to have him killed, but Rone kills both the knife-throwing Kitai and his gun-wielding orderly instead, leaving the bodies as if the two had killed each other.

Meanwhile Rone hopes to save any imprisoned survivors from the raid. Now at the apartment of Colonel Kosnov's mother, "Yorgi" tells a thoroughly besotted and eager Erika he has stumbled onto a way they can make money for their escape to the West: The night before, he met an old friend of his who is willing to pay 20,000 rubles for information on some western agents who were arrested in an important raid the day before. If Erika can ask her husband Kosnov about them, he and Erika will have enough money to leave Moscow. However, Erika says there is no way a raid like that could have happened yesterday, since Kosnov had taken the day off and she was with him from morning until night. When the alert Erika sees "Yorgi" is more keen on learning about arrested western agents than making love to her, she guesses he is an agent himself. Heartbroken, Erika says, "I still love you, it doesn't stop me from despising you... That's the world you live in. Truth can have no meaning, otherwise you're suddenly dead." She wryly notes he still has some things to learn about his job, saying, "You should have made love to me just now, for instance. Slips like that can be fatal." When he says he'll take her to America, she becomes even more embittered to learn he is an American. Erika asks if he has an escape route. Rone answers that he does and she tells him he should forget her and the others and get out, saving himself. Rone tells her he can't and she calls him a "romantic fool" but says he can stay in the apartment, that she won't betray him, will ask a friend about the others and call him. After she leaves, Rone sits down at a table and begins to write. Keeping her word Erika later calls Rone, saying two of the men are dead and the third one is being held for questioning. She tells Rone, "The girl took poison, she'll probably die." Erika then asks Rone if he wants to see her, or if she has served her purpose. Rone says he'll get her out if that's what she wants and Erika says she wants him. They agree she'll come back to the apartment in the early evening. Rone telephones Bresnavitch, identifying himself as "Polyakov's replacement." Rone tells Bresnavitch he knows everything about the Kremlin Letter and the artworks and is sending letters to both Washington DC and the central committee. Bresnavitch asks if the letters can be recovered and Rone asks who has survived the raid. When Bresnavitch says Ward is the only survivor, Rone tells him to have Ward brought to his house and that he'll call back in half an hour. When he does, Ward answers the phone, then hands it to Bresnavitch who listens. Rone will stop the letters from being sent if Bresnavitch gives him and Ward passports along with absolute security so they can leave the USSR. Bresnavitch agrees to this, then says, "Tell me one thing. Where is the Kremlin Letter?" Rone answers, "In Peking," and hangs up. Bresnavitch breaks into fits of laughter as he walks over to a thoughtful-looking Ward.

When he gets to the apartment Ward asks Rone why, when he knew Ward's flight was arriving at the airport the day before at 3:00, he didn't go there to meet and warn him of the raid which happened an hour before. When Rone says B.A. was coming to the apartment at 3:00, Ward wryly says, "Oh I see! It was her or me!" Since nobody had shot at him when he tried to save B.A. on the open street, Rone says he thinks Bresnavitch ordered that the arrests be done quietly so as not to alert Kosnov. He also tells Ward about what happened with the Kitai, that he thinks the letter is in Peking and the Chinese plan to "blow the lid off holy Russia" with it. Ward grins cheerily and Rone is nettled Ward is taking the deaths of their people and the failure of the mission so lightly. After writing a note for Erika, Rone leaves to fetch two of the letters from Mikhail, with whom he had left them. When Erika shows up she is very startled and wary to see Ward, who tells her he is a friend of "Yorgi." As she reads the note Rone has left her, Ward puts on a jacket Rone had worn as "Yorgi" and brutally kills Erika with his bare hands, making her murder look like the outcome of an angry rape by "Yorgi."

Colonel Kosnov is enraged over the murder of his wife, swiftly looks into it and indeed believes "Yorgi" killed her. The next day at an airport near Moscow, both Kosnov and Rone stumble into a trap which Ward has set with Bresnavitch's help. As Kosnov tries to vengefully beat "Yorgi" to death, still without a clue he is hitting and kicking an American agent, he is caught wholly off guard when Ward walks in and tells him to stop. Kosnov asks, "Who are you?" and Ward laughs, answering, "I'm a friend of yours!" Kosnov says "I seem to know you," as Ward aims a pistol at him, then names a long list of agents Kosnov has tortured and killed throughout his career. Ward ends the list with Polyakov, then says, "...if it is possible for one man to make retribution for the torment of so many it will happen, now," and shoots Kosnov in the knee. Struggling not to fall, Kosnov looks up at Ward in fear saying, "No, no, it... it isn't... it can't be." Ward nods grimly, steps towards him, bends down and Kosnov screams in pain.

In an airport lavatory, his face badly bruised by the beating he took from Kosnov, Rone listens as Ward, in his folksy, cheerful way tells him, "You know I still can't get over it. First time across and you come up with all the right answers," saying Rone was "damn smart" to have thought out what happened to the letter. While talking about the hundreds of thousands of dollars each will get for having survived the mission, Ward's only true regret seems to be that they can't get their hands on the $2,000,000 waiting for Erika in a Tangiers bank, money her first husband (and Stuydevant's old friend) Polyakov made selling Bresnavitch's state secrets and stolen artworks, which Ward didn't know about before he killed her. Rone says he knows how much Ward likes money, but that Ward came into the mission mainly to kill Kosnov. Ward chuckles and asks, "...didn't anybody ever teach you that revenge is sweet?"

"Sweet to Stuydevant," Rone answers. "You're Stuydevant."

It is clear to Rone that Stuydevant will not be leaving the USSR with him and indeed, Stuydevant has made a deal with Bresnavitch to stay on in Moscow and run the Soviet counter-intelligence service himself, taking over Kosnov's job at last. Rone tells Stuydevant, "I'm your insurance policy. You'll keep Bresnavitch in line by reminding him what I know about him. One word from you and I'll tell the world. You need me to keep your Russian job."

When Rone asks if he should tell Sweet Alice the Kremlin Letter is in Peking, Stuydevant says he already called Sweet Alice to let him know about it, "That's why I went to Paris. All that about checkin' on missin' masterpieces, it was a lot of bushwah. I couldn't come clean. You'd all have wanted to pile out and I had that unfinished business to attend to."

As they walk towards a Scandinavian commercial airliner Stuydevant says, "I got you a little goin' away present" and leads Rone to an ambulance. Its rear door opens and inside on a stretcher is a clearly weak but smiling B.A. A Soviet soldier then stands between Rone and B.A. as the ambulance door is closed. Stuydevant says, "We had a hell of a time saving her... but the doctor says she's gonna be all right." He then tells Rone, "as long as I've got that girl where I can keep an eye on her, I kinda figure you'll use a little discretion in what you tell people about me, I mean, like how valiantly I died, I mean how valiantly Ward died" on their mission to find the Kremlin Letter. When Rone says "Somehow I'll get her out," Stuydevant tells him how proud he is of Rone, that he has "graduated from kindergarten with flying colours" and has one last thing to do before he gets his "diploma," after which, Stuydevant says, "I will give you the girl." As Rone boards the plane for his flight to the West, Stuydevant hands him an envelope. Once seated in the cabin of the aircraft, he waves through the window to Stuydevant on the snow-covered tarmac below. With jet engines screaming as they spool up, Rone reads a short, handwritten note telling of the nightmarish choice he must make: Kill Potkin's wife and daughters or I kill the girl.


  1. Seymour, Gene. "100 Greatest Spy Movies: A Special Collector's Edition from the Editors of American History. 2009. Weider History Group.
  2., The Kremlin Letter, retrieved 31 December 2008

External links

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