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The Criterion Completist – Letter Never Sent (1960)

April 8, 2012


written by: Grigori Koltunov, Valeri Osipov & Victor Rozov

directed by: Mikhail Kalatozov

rating: unrated

runtime: 97 min. 

U.S. release date: November 17, 1960 (premiered at Cannes in May 1960) 

DVD/Blu-ray release date: March 20, 2012


The opening title card to “Letter Never Sent” let’s us know that this film is “Dedicated to the Soviet People.”  The opening shot then shows a close-up of four smiling, waving people standing outdoors next to a lake.  In an astonishing single take sequence, the camera slowly pulls away, further and further and up into the air until they are but mere dots on an endless, desolate landscape.  Is director Mikhail Kalatozov making a wry comment on the abandonment and isolation of the previously mentioned Soviet people, or just showing off some flashy technical camera moves?

The premise is quite simple: four geologists are dropped off in the Siberian wilderness to find possible diamond mines.  Led by Sabinin (Innokenti Smoktunovsky), the group spends the first part of the film hiking through forests, digging trenches, and panning for precious stones.  He is the author of the titular letter, written to his wife, that he forgot to send before embarking on this journey.  There is one woman in the group, Tanya (Tatyana Samoilova, who stars in Kalatozov’s most well-known film, “The Cranes Are Flying”), which creates some sexual tension amongst the men.  The film shifts gears dramatically halfway through when the group awakens to find themselves in the midst of a raging forest fire, cut off from their supply line back to the lake.  The rest of the film becomes a desperate struggle for survival as the group battles through the blaze, and then through the harsh Siberian elements as they attempt to make it back to civilization.



Kalatozov’s secret weapon is the unbelievable camera work of his cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky.  In one scene, a handheld camera follows Sabinin drifting in and out a dense thicket, while his interior monologue expresses his concerns and doubts about the trip, a sequence lifted almost wholesale by Terrence Malick in his “The Thin Red Line.”  Another unbelievable, how-the-hell-did-they-do-that single take sequence has a character making his way down a river while surrounded on all sides by a (very real, non CGI’ed) burning forest, as he dips underwater to avoid broken trees and falling flaming branches.  Characters swoop in and out of the frame in dazzlingly choreographed shots, cameras drop down from the air and rise up from the ground, weaving in between the charred hulks of trees across a blasted hellscape.  But Urusevsky also knows when to put his bag of tricks aside, and just let the camera linger on the endless Siberian tundra and our hapless protagonists trudging across a lonely horizon.



All Soviet cinema must be viewed through Red-tinted glasses, and even though Kalatozov was apparently banned from filmmaking in 1931 after a documentary landed him in hot water with Stalinist censors, it certainly seems here as though he’s less interested in pleasing government cultural watchdogs than showcasing his technical prowess behind the camera and just telling a good story.  Aside from a cheesy ditch-digging scene featuring bare-chested, muscled Russian men swinging pickaxes to the strains of some generic patriotic march, there is little flag-waving on display.  Indeed, Kalatozov has shown himself to be a director with the intensity and vision of someone like Werner Herzog, and it’s too bad his work is not more well-known.  With the bare-bones theme of man vs. Nature, and a relative absence of government appeasement, “Letter Never Sent” is simply a riveting survival story, comparable to a movie like “The Wages of Fear”, and is easily recommended to movie fans of all stripes.

It is a movie like “Letter Never Sent” that underscores the importance of a company like Criterion, rescuing this amazing film from obscurity and giving it a second life for filmgoers of today. This is a single disc Criterion release with almost no special features, save for a booklet with an essay on the film (which can be read on the Criterion website).  The digital restoration and transfer is perfect however, and would be worth shelling out the extra cash for the Blu-ray edition to fully enjoy the sumptuous cinematography.


RATING: ***1/2




Matt Streets saw his first film in 1980, when his parents took him to see Robert Altman’s “Popeye” at the Tivoli Theater in Downers Grove, IL.  Since that rocky start, he has become a lifelong movie fan, and has written film reviews on and off since giving “Medicine Man” two stars for his high school newspaper back in 1992.  He is currently attempting the insane feat of watching every single film in the Criterion Collection as The Criterion Completist.

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