Letter Never Sent – The Criterion Collection #601 (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)
March 14, 2012 by Dennis Amith
A visual masterpiece! Mikhail Kalatozov’s “Letter Never Sent” looks incredible on Blu-ray! Cineastes who are wanting more Russian cinema in their collection, this film is highly recommended!
Image courtesy of ©1959 Mosfilm. 2012 The Criterion Collection. All Rights Reserved.
TITLE: Letter Never Sent – The Criterion Collection #601 (Neotpravlennoye pismo)
MOVIE RELEASE: 1959
DURATION: 96 Minutes
DVD INFORMATION: B&W, 1:33:1 Aspect Ratio, Monaural in Russian with English Subtitles
COMPANY: Janus Films/The Criterion Collection
RELEASE DATE: March 20, 2012
Directed by Mikhail Kalatozov
Written by Grigori Koltunov, Viktori Rozov
Story and Screenplay by Valeri Osipov
Music by Nikolai Kryukov
Cinematography by Sergei Urusevsky
Editing by N. Anikina
Production Design by David Vinitsky
Costume Design by Leonid Naumov
Tatyana Samojlova as Tanya
Yevgeni Urbansky as Sergei
Innokenti Smoktunovsky as Sabinine
Vasili Livanov as Andrei
Galina Kozhakina as Vera
The great Soviet director Mikhail Kalatozov, known for his virtuosic, emotionally gripping films, perhaps never made a more visually astonishing one than Letter Never Sent. This absorbing tale of exploration and survival concerns the four members of a geological expedition, who are stranded in the bleak and unforgiving Siberian wilderness while on a mission to find diamonds. Luxuriating in wide-angle beauty and featuring one daring shot after another (the brilliant cinematography is by Kalatozov’s frequent collaborator Sergei Urusevsky), Letter Never Sent is a fascinating piece of cinematic history and a universal adventure of the highest order.
Visually astonishing! It’s the words that I can easily describe the 1960 film “Neotpravlennoye pismo” (Letter Never Sent) directed by Soviet filmmaker Mikhail Kalatozov.
Known for directing the 1957 film “The Cranes are Flying” and the 1964 film “I Am Cuba”, “Letter Never Sent” would reunite the filmmaker with “Cranes” actress Tatyama Samjlova who had become of the most talented and sought out actress of the time in Europe.
And while “Letter Never Sent” is not as popular or as critically favored as Kalatozov’s other two films, the film is best remembered for its surreal and visually stunning cinematography by Sergei Urusevsky.
“Letter Never Sent” is a film about four geologists who are sent into an uninhabited area on an expedition to find diamonds.
The leader Sabinine (played by Innokenti Smoktunovsky) is joined by Tanya (played by Tatyana Samojlova), her boyfriend Andrei (played by Vasili Livanov) and Sergei (played by Yevgeni Urbansky).
Their mission is to find diamonds which the Russian government is hoping they find to help with the economy but also for them to establish a new city.
For Sabinine, this is a mission that has not been successful for other geologists, but working on a theory, the group travel to the unforgiving Siberian wilderness.
Sabinine is often seen writing a letter to his wife Vera (played by Galina Kozhakina). Because everything was so sudden, he didn’t have a chance to say goodbye and he still has a letter which he has not sent to her, but he uses the letter to document his experience in search of the diamonds.
We watch as the group spend months and months digging and studying rocks for diamonds. As Tanya and Andrei are often seen as playful towards each other, Sergei is having a hard time dealing with it as he loves Tanya, but she picked Andrei over him. But he also has an unsent letter that he written for Tanya but never gave to her.
As the expedition is leading to no diamonds, the geologists are starting to think there are none. But Sabinine reminds them of their job and they must continue!
And sure enough, in the middle of nowhere, Sabinine finds diamonds in an area that they were digging and the whole team celebrates. The group can only think about the prosperity it would bring to their country and how they would be looked as heroes when they return.
And as they give the Russian government good news via radio and the group provide markers and a map to find the area where the diamonds were found, the group decide to call it a day and get some sleep.
Unfortunately, by the time they wake up, nature has revolted as the wilderness has caught fire all around them. The group fears all the hard work will be naught but to make things worse, the radio to communicate with the government has stopped transmitting and now the expedition has become a mission of survival.
And with conditions worsening around the area, will these four geologists survive the entire ordeal?
“Letter Never Sent” is presented in black and white (1080p High Definition). I have to admit while watching this film, I was floored by how gorgeous this picture looks considering it was made back in 1959. There were no blemishes, the detail was strong, no blurring, no problems whatsoever. I have to go and say that the picture quality is fantastic as close ups show skin pores and grime on the characters faces, contrast levels are wonderful as whites and greys are well-defined, black levels are deep. I was very impressed!
According to the Criterion Collection, this new high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit Datacine from a new 35 mm print. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter and flicker were manually removed using MTI’s DRS and Pixel Farm’s PFClean, while Image Systems’ DVNR was used for small dirt, grain and noise reduction.
AUDIO & SUBTITLES:
“Letter Never Sent” is presented in LPCM Monaural Russian with English subtitles. The dialogue and the music by Nikolai Kryukov is crystal clear and hear no hiss or any audio problems during my viewing.
According to the Criterion Collection, the original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a 35 mm optical soundtrack positive. Clicks, thumps, hiss and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation.
“Letter Never Sent – The Criterion Collection #601” on Blu-ray comes with no special features.
“Letter Never Sent – The Criterion Collection #601” comes with a 20-page booklet with the essay “Refining Fire” by Dina Iordanova, professor of film studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
You often hear about collaborations between a director and their cinematographer and how closely in sync they are in working together on many films. From Jean-Luc Godard and Raoul Coutard to Wong Kar Wai and Christopher Doyle, these collaborations have often led to the efficacy of a film.
And the same can be said with director Mikhail Kalatozov and cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky. These two men work brilliantly together and although they have worked on three films, the three films “The Cranes Are Flying” (1957), “Letter Never Sent” (1959) and “I Am Cuba” (1964) are films that the three are best known for.
With “Letter Never Sent”, it was not as highly regarded by film critics when compared to their masterpiece “The Cranes are Flying” but just watching this film, it’s hard to deny it because it is visually stunning.
It’s important to note that when it came to Russian cinema, most people were familiar with films by Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, Vsevolod Pudovkin but by 1957 with “The Cranes are Flying” winning the P’alme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, the film resonated strongly with cineaste all over the planet and more and more people became interested in Russian cinema.
Also, the fact that both Kalatozov and Urusevsky didn’t create traditional Russian films, they did things their own way and these films created by the two men were part of the “thawing” of Society society.
Josephone Woll wrote in her book “Cranes Are Flying”, “Within weeks of Stalin’s demise, writers openly rebuffed bureaucratic interference in the arts and defend their right to the individual expression. But in the rigid hierarchy of the Soviet Union, such a radical change of direction required an official imprimatur”.
And this artistic expression by both men would have an influence on filmmakers Andrei Tarkobsky and Francis Ford Coppola (and his film “Apocalypse Now”). While Kalatozov’s Stalinist ideology of the time is quite evident.
First, a discussion of the visual aspect of this film. The film looked amazing, haunting and also incredibly risky.
From the occasional close-ups to capture emotional reactions, the vignette shots of the characters or branches to the quick camera shots as characters can be running, while the camera follows each and every step was fascinating and beautiful. Also, to add the clever editing of N. Anikina of fire consuming the video while the geologists are digging for diamonds to Sabinine thinking of his dear Vera. For this type of film, you can say it has quite a few moments of romantic situations, some utilizing clever editing which was pretty significant at that time.
You can see the characters being surrounded by trees and branches on fire, embers falling by the many all around them. The characters having to dive underwater so they do not come in contact with the branches. In today’s films, these scenes would all be in CGI, but back then, to achieve realism, the talent were put into risky situations.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the fear that we see in the faces of the characters was genuine fear. While I’m sure the fire was controlled, having falling embers on fire all around you, suffice to say, it’s risky filmmaking that fortunately no talent were seriously injured.
But overall, the cinematography is just amazing to look at.
As for the ideology, that portion of the film also intrigued me as everyone was excited about the expedition in the name of the Soviet government and wanting to initiate synergy into the industrial revolution by finding these diamonds. Although this film is about four geologist, it is more of a film about four people trying to attain something incredible for their government. The characters talk about pride for their country.
Sure diamonds came from South Africa, but why would Russians want to do that. It’s the refusal of capitalism that you see in this film, these individuals are working together for the betterment of Russian society and its government is right.
In fact, these individuals are not interested in taking diamonds back home with them or pocketing it for their own individual desires. There was none of that. These people wanted one thing and that was to accomplish a dream of the Soviet people celebrating the riches of what they found and jump starting their country’s economy and industrial progress.
As for the Blu-ray release, this film looks absolutely magnificent in HD. It looks as if the original print was not even touched because the detail and the quality of the film looks fantastic! The lossless monaural track is crystal clear when it comes to dialogue, Nikolai Kryukov’s evocative score was amazing and English subtitles were easy to read. No problems with video or audio at all. If anything, Criterion Collection has done a remarkable job in making this film look nearly pristine!
If there was one thing that I wished this Blu-ray release had, it would be special features as “Letter Never Sent” comes with none (which is usually never the case for a release from The Criterion Collection). Although, you do get a Criterion Collection 20-page booklet. Also, it’s important to note that because of the lack of special features, The Criterion Collection usually releases these films at a lower price point for Blu-ray and DVD.
Overall, “Letter Never Sent” is a straightforward, easy to follow film. In fact, I would say this is one of Kalatozov’s most accessible film out on video.
While the storyline may not be as memorable compared to Mikhail Kalatozov’s “The Cranes are Falling” or even “I Am Cuba”, “Letter Never Sent” is a visual masterpiece that should not be ignored. Especially when Sergei Urusevsky’s cinematography looks incredible on Blu-ray! Definitely recommended!
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