For the life of me I no longer recall why I watched this when SBS showed it a long time ago (I have dim memories of it being in 1994, at which time I was doing a class on Soviet cinema; maybe that was what induced me), but I’ve always been glad I did, and I was delighted when Criterion announced it as a forthcoming title some months ago (not least because it meant I’d finally be able to actually watch it again since I can no longer watch my old tape of it). This was my first encounter with the partnership of Kalatozov & Urusevsky, whose Cranes are Flying and I am Cuba I’ve since become familiar with, though it seems to be less celebrated than either of those (Cranes being a hit in its day, Cuba a posthumous discovery). I was bowled over by it back then, though, especially by Urusevsky’s camerawork. The story is reasonably straightforward—an exploratory party of geologists goes to Siberia in search of diamonds, finds them, then everything turns to shit when a forest fire strikes, battle for survival in hostile wilderness, etc—but no less thrilling for that, and the extraordinary visual rendering of it really lifts it up with its eccentric compositions and wild angles and movements. It’s an object lesson in landscape-as-character, and a persuasive argument for the superiority of black and white film in at least some situations (I’m sure that location is beautiful in colour, but it’s more menacing—as it needs to be—in monochrome). Pleased to be able to report that, unlike in quite a few cases, this is a film that blew me away in my late teens that I haven’t cooled on years later; hopefully the fact that Criterion have endorsed it means people other than me will be turned onto it as well, however belatedly.
Letter Never Sent (1960)