Letter Never Sent (1960) is the second of three film collaborations between director Mikhail Kalatozov and cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky. The duo also created the Soviet art-house favorites The Cranes Are Flying and I Am Cuba.
There are different narrative angles at work in Letter Never Sent. At its most basic it is the story of four Soviet geologists who are sent out to investigate the possibility of diamonds in the more forested areas of Siberia. Sabinin (Innokenti Smoktunovsky) acts as the leader of the group, and chronicles some of his feelings and notes on their journey in an unsent letter to his love back home. His thoughts become part love letter and part survival diary as their journey grows more and more desperate. The remaining three scientists form a makeshift love triangle, made up of young couple Andrei and Tanya (Vasili Livanov and Tatyana Samoilova, respectively) and Sergei (Yevgeny Urbansky) who is secretly in love with Tanya, and writes out his feelings in his own unsent letter to her.
The story soon finds them discovering a strain of diamonds, rejoicing, and communicating back to Moscow with news of their find. They celebrate their success as well as the economic boon this will be for the Soviet economy. But as they begin the long journey back to their pickup point, a fire ignites the forest and quickly surrounds the entire region. At this point the story shifts to a simple survival tale of man against the elements and, more importantly, perseverance during physical hardship.
It’s these thematic shifts that unground Letter Never Sent. Ultimately the movie relies on its striking cinematography, which does help, as the dialogue and story feel underdeveloped. We start with a story of unrequited love, then shift over to discussions about Soviet nationalism and duty, before finally beginning the long journey of an actual long survival journey. The relationships between the scientists are vague at best, and in fact it takes a while to suss out who is writing to whom. Although the strong Soviet undertones are anything but subtle, they’re smashed up against things quite out of step with propaganda. The ultimate disconnect from the government is a bit of a black eye delivered by the story, and the dwindling numbers of the party show a blind and often futile devotion to the Soviet system. By the time the film ends with its rather ambiguous final scenes, it is anything but uplifting. It’s a strange mixture of loyalty and subversion in nationalism.
It would be easy to write off some of these more problematic elements if the movie itself didn’t look so damn good. But it does. The cinematography is magnificent enough to forgive a whole host of the film’s other sins. Not all of them, but a healthy chunk. The collaborations between Kalatozov and Urusevsky were largely marked by this emphasis on style over substance. But it’s style that’s worth seeing, and the substance really isn’t any less formed than the majority of films from the period.
Criterion has done an impressive job with the preservation and presentation of this film. Although there are sections where things either haven’t been completely washed clean – some debris during the opening credits – or the visual clarity dips – not uncommon during the handheld moments in the thick of the woods, where focus can stray a bit – this is still one of the best-looking restorations and cleanest black and white sources you’re likely to see. The detail is often astounding, especially noticeable with the frequent character close-ups. Skin and facial hair are suitably weathered and textured, showcasing a rather pristine source print that yields some immaculate detail. Some of the obvious studio shots don’t fare as well as their location counterparts, but overall this is a quite beautiful looking film.
The mono soundtrack receives a strong and stable LPCM 1.0 encoding. Dialogue is suitably present and well positioned in the mix, although there are points where the Russian orchestral backdrop feels underpowered. The music varies between genuinely moody and stark on one end, and generic and flamboyant on the other, although Kalatozov is mindful to always give the dialogue and character journeys ample breathing room.
There are no bonus items on the disc itself, but a nicely illustrated booklet is included, featuring an essay on the film – as well as more general notes on Kalatozov and Soviet cinema of the time – by film historian Dina Iordanova.
Letter Never Sent is a formidable example of camera work at its most luxurious. It’s just a shame that the story lags behind the visuals, with a plot that wanders as much as the characters, and a shoehorned Soviet idealism. But it’s very easy to get lost in the lush-turned-stark images, as Kalatozov and Urusevsky present nothing less than a master class in black and white cinematography.