We all enjoy being stumped by riddles like Why is a raven like a writing desk? A riddle is a mental puzzle, a brain teaser much like a good mystery. Well, here’s another riddle. Question: Why is Gorky Park like the U.S. presidential election? Answer: It’s a story about a corrupt American businessman, Russian collusion, and a coverup designed to protect those who sell out their country for personal gain.
Based on the best-selling novel by Martin Cruz Smith, the movie Gorky Park is an easily recognizable ancestor of today’s European crime wave films like David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or the more recent Red Sparrow, which is also set in Russia. But Gorky Park nourishes our minds better than these nouveau recipe films, which substitute complexity for mystery. Red Sparrow is crammed with spies, sex, suspense, and Jennifer Lawrence star power, but it lacks the magnetic power of a good riddle.
Filmed during the Cold War and set in Soviet-era Russia, Gorky Park was mainly shot in Helsinki. The cast, which includes William Hurt, Lee Marvin, and Brian Dennehy avoid fake Russian accents, but the deep freeze of Soviet bureaucracy, along with the Finnish snow and Romanov architecture quickly convince us we’re back in the U.S.S.R.
The movie starts off innocently. A trio of revelers are ice skating in Moscow’s most popular park. But, they are skating on the tip of an iceberg. Within minutes, Arkady Renko (William Hurt), an uncompromising Moscow militia detective, is running a challenging murder investigation when three bodies are found in the snow.
The murder scene is a helluva riddle. Two men and a woman have been shot in the chest. Two victims were then shot again in the mouth. Adding insult to injury, someone has gone to the trouble of surgically removing all their faces and fingertips, which makes them almost impossible to identify.
The victims were shot with a 7.65 caliber pistol – a KGB weapon. Who are they? Why were they killed? The Russian state police seem to have no interest in the gruesome triple execution, so Renko, who foolishly fingered the KGB for an earlier murder – and was almost killed for his trouble, is again working a case no one else wants solved.
Unable to identify the victims, Renko follows the only lead he has. Irina Asanova (played by Polish newcomer, Joanna Pacula), is a film wardrobe assistant whose name is found sewn in the ice skate worn by the female victim. But, when he questions her, Irina tells Renko she lost the skate. Is that a crime?
No. Not even in Russia.
As the victim’s faces are being painstakingly reconstructed by Professor Andreev (Ian McDiarmid) a physical anthropologist at Moscow University, the police autopsy uncovers an important clue. One of the three victims had root canal work, a procedure frequently performed by American dentists, but rarely in Europe. Perhaps the bodies are not Russians. And perhaps the killers are not Russians either.
When Renko goes to a weekend party at Chief Prosecutor Iamskoy’s (Ian Bannen) dacha, he runs into Irina again. This time she’s hanging with – and probably banging – Jack Osborne (Lee Marvin) an American businessman who’s made a fortune exporting Russian sable furs to his homeland. The only reason Jack Osborne isn’t as rich as Donald Trump is because Russia has strict laws against exporting live sables. He needs the furs and Russia has a monopoly on sable breeding. As Osborne, Lee Marvin is at his antagonistic best and almost steals the film from Hurt, who is resigned to living under communism and working to liberate the truth at the same time.
In private, Renko tells his boss he suspects the KGB had a hand in the crime and asks to be reassigned before someone shoots him in the teeth. But, the chief prosecutor wants to keep Renko on the case. He reassures him “the KGB cannot work outside the law. Otherwise they’re little better than the CIA.”
Like Detective J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) in Chinatown, who stumbles back into the same exotic LA hornets nest, Renko feels he’s being set up for another painful lesson in Russian politics. Especially when the prosecutor tells him that Osborne has strong Kremlin connections, possibly including Brezhnev himself. That brings us to another riddle: How do you investigate collusion? Answer: Very slowly. Renko, who spends his leisure time on Moscow’s food lines, is used to waiting things out.
Soon enough, we get a new piece of the puzzle when another policeman steps into the hornets nest stirred up by the unsolved murders. William Kirwell (Brian Dennehy), is a New York cop who’s moonlighting in Moscow looking for his missing brother. The question is, who is he working for? The KGB home team or the lawless CIA visiting team?
On a scale of 1 to 10, I give Gorky Park a 9 thanks to the combination of efficient screenwriting by Dennis Potter and elegant direction by Michael Apted. Beyond my numerical rating, I have to confess that Gorky Park has long been one of my all-time favorite movies. Nowadays, we regularly watch detectives solve murder cases all over the world. Gorky Park was the first good police procedural set in Russia, and it proved, beyond a reasonable doubt, there’s enough police corruption in Moscow to give Frank Serpico nightmares.
At its core, Gorky Park is a simple good cop versus bad cop story. But it’s also a deeper story about separating truth from lies, interbreeding capitalism and communism, and the painfully slow process of ensnaring wealthy men who consider themselves above the law and their corrupt political partners.
As Osborne tells Renko in a memorable cat and mouse scene at an elite Russian bathhouse, “That’s no way to catch a sable. They’re far too cunning and far too fast. While you wait, and you think, and you watch, your prey is gone. Meanwhile, I have the sable hat and you don’t.”
Given the current interest in Trump’s Russian Collusion investigation, no film should be queued higher on your Must Watch list. And some politically hip producer with an updated script and Renko’s balls should remake Gorky Park right now so they’re ready to release it in 2020.
In the movie business, timing is everything.