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Letter Never Sent: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray Review)

We’re back once again bringing you the latest in Blu-ray coverage and this time out we’ve got Letter Never Sent from The Criterion Collection. Letter Never Sent is a Russian film that was released in 1959 by famed Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov. Criterion has brought us a film that has been given the TLC treatment which they’re famously known for. How will Letter Never Sent stack up to the recent crop of Criterion Collection releases? Will it be spilling over from the excess special features or will it be a movie only version? This and more is what we’re here to find out. 

Film

Letter Never Sent aka Unsent Letter tells the story for four geologists who are sent by the Russian government into the depths of an unforgiving behemoth known as Siberia to dig for diamonds. It’s hinted that by finding diamonds in Siberia, Russia will no longer need to rely on others for help as it will be able to sustain itself and people for years to come. It’s a very prideful endeavor, as well: For Russia by Russians, so to speak.

Sabinin (Innokenti Smoktunovsky), Tanya (Tatyana Samoilova), Andrei (Vasili Livanov), and Sergei (Yevgeny Urbansky) are our main protagonists who are sent in to discover these diamonds that will change the course of their country forever.

Tanya and Andrei are a couple in love, but now Sergei has fallen in love with Tanya. Yep, they do have wicked love triangles in Siberia, too. Sabinin is already married, but longs to be with his wife once again and starts to write a letter to her while on the helicopter just before they land. He doesn’t finish the letter, but decides to hold on to it through their trek out in the Siberian wilderness – hence the title of the film. Sabinin uses the letter that he initially started for his wife as a journal to describe the drama and dangers out in the middle of nowhere.

By the same token, as Tanya, Sergei, and Andrei continue on their work, Sergei’s feelings for Tanya intensify and he tries to make a move on her. It’s quickly rejected and he goes about his business. He later has a conversation with Andrei about a “hypothetical” woman that Sergei is in love with and why would this “woman” fall for someone that’s pretty much a wuss instead of a “real man?” It’s kind of funny, because it’s one of those conversations where the guy is obviously talking about himself while trying to disguise the conversation as hypothetical. Andrei uses his calm demeanor to reason with Sergei to diffuse the situation before it gets even more awkward.

While the men are off being men Tanya finds a diamond in a ditch which calls for celebration and a radio transmission back to home base. This should have been a “shake and bake” operation, but they are quickly told by the person on the other side of the radio that they are unable to go in for extraction at that moment – to just hang back for a few hours. That’s where the real trouble begins.

Out of nowhere comes a raging firestorm that wipes out their camp and they have to make due with what few items of survival they have before they get swept up in the giant fireball. I like how there’s an extra sensory element at play within the landscape itself. As soon as Tanya discovered the diamond and took it, mother nature woke up all of a sudden and said, “You’re not taking that diamond, bitch!” The landscape becomes a character unto itself and throws everything it can to stop the crew in their tracks. From firestorms, to blizzards, sandstorms, sharp and rugged areas to get caught in, etc. Make no mistake, there will be casualties involved.

Another thing that’s striking about Letter Never Sent is the brilliant cinematography. There are some great shots of the scenery in addition to some unique action shots during some of the non-landscape ones. Dissolves are used in a very hypnotic fashion, as well.

The film runs at a brisk 96 minutes which flies by in no time. If you’re a fan of The Grey, or The Edge , minus the animals, and want to see a REAL animal, then Letter Never Sent is your beast. It’s extremely well done.

Video

Here’s a note from The Criterion Collection before I get to my spiel about the video specs: Letter Never Sent is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. On widescreen televisions, black bars will appear on the left and right of the image to maintain the proper screen format. 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.

Letter Never Sent was released in 1959 and after watching the Blu-ray I’d wager that the film has not looked as good as the original prints that were struck for release that year. Letter Never Sent looks phenomenal! Criterion really do know what they’re doing in terms of restoring some of these films back to their original luster. Grain levels were not tinkered with at all and the annoying “strobing” effect that is present in older black and white films is nowhere to be found. The strobing effect is my biggest pet peeve when it comes to older films. I was glad to see that there was none of that on this Blu-ray. This Blu-ray is top shelf in the video department.

Audio

Here’s a note on the audio presentation from The Criterion Collection before my spiel: 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.

Yes, this is a monaural soundtrack, but not one of the best that I’ve ever heard. No, I don’t expect Criterion to hit it out of the ballpark every single time, but I also don’t know how much better Letter Never Sent could have sounded. It plays back on one channel (the center channel), but it’s okay all things considered. The only times that it would get kind of “trebly” were in the blizzard scenes as some of the actors were shouting as they were being blown away by blizzard-like conditions. That’s a lot of information for one channel to handle, but other than those quibbles, it did live up to the challenge during the rest of the not-so-in-your-face dangers. Dialogue was fine with some minor crackling during the scenes mentioned before.

Extras

I never thought I’d give a Criterion Collection release a goose egg before, but Letter Never Sent is a movie-only version with no added special features to speak of with the exception of an essay booklet. Sad face.

  • A booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Dina Iordanova

Summary

Letter Never Sent is a very subdued, but not subdued film about the lengths one goes to to get what they want and I’m not necessarily talking about our protagonists. They’re actually our heroes, but it’s their country that has, for a lack of a better word, abandoned them for the almighty dollar. Due to the lack of special features on this Blu-ray the score averages way down in the end, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad film. Far from it. Watching Letter Never Sent I kept thinking of one of the many famous lines from Predator where Jesse Ventura says, “If you lose it out here, you’re in a world of hurt.” Truer words were never spoken, big guy.

 

 

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Gerard Iribe is a writer/reviewer for Why So Blu?. He has also reviewed for other sites like DVD Talk, Project-Blu, and CHUD, but Why So Blu? is where the heart is. You can follow his incoherency on Twitter: @giribe

2 Responses to “Letter Never Sent: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray Review)”


  1. Matt Goodman

    Criterion? No special features? What is this?!!?!

  2. Brian White

    WOWEE! I can;t believe Gerard had to score a Criterion title a goose egg in a category. I’m proud of you!