Thursday, August 19, 2010

Emergency! Everybody to get from stritt!

As it is August, and I would rather be in Maine, I pulled out an old friend, the movie The Russians Are Coming The Russians Are Coming (1966) which reminds me of New England and of the summer in Maine when I first saw it. (I was surprised to learn it was shot in Sausalito, so accurate are the rickety little New England houses and stores built for the movie.) I loved the movie then and my inner 10-year-old still loves it, perhaps because the children are the only ones who behave sensibly while the adults run around like idiots. The art is in the varieties of hysteria exhibited by the denizens of a small New England island (based on Martha's Vineyard in the 50s) when they believe Russians have launched an attack.

My first reaction in re-watching it, is to wonder why Jewison didn't cast a stronger leading man as the writer played by Carl Reiner. Reiner was never successful as a star (his sitcom Head of the Family didn't work when he starred in it, only when it was recast with Dick Van Dyke). Dick Van Dyke would have been a logical choice--he was making a lousy picture for Walt Disney at the time that could have been postponed. Jack Lemmon would have been good, too.

But then I realized Reiner was the perfect choice, because he is actually second banana. The story is really about the submarine officer leading the landing party, and again director Norman Jewison exhibits his casting genius by bringing Alan Arkin to the screen for the first time, in the fully justified confidence that Arkin would more than carry the film--he would triumph. In this case, the movie is inconceivable with anyone but Arkin. I can't think of another comic actor of his generation who seeks so little approval from the audience, or even awareness of them. Like Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, he is fully absorbed in the task in which he is engaged and has no time for "business" or "takes." He just exists, unaware of and undistracted by the absurdities piling up around him. Yet, somehow, he is likeable, if only because of his earnestness and the way his essential competence has been tripped up by circumstance.

The film has the usual flaws of a film based on a script by William Rose: it is too long and redundant, with many scenes devolving into mere squabbling, without real comic bite or crispness. Rose has an interesting career, with a lot of almost-great work. He was an American living in England, and had his first hit with Genevieve, a sort of low-rent version of The Great Race, which exhibits his trademark over-talkativeness. Then came the brilliant Ladykillers (the original British version, puh-lease) and the charming Smallest Show On Earth, which should be better known to film-lovers, because it is about them. Then he seems to have run afoul of American producers, and the drift began. He wrote Scent of Mystery, a gimmick film in which clues were rendered as "Smell-O-Vision." Then came the grotesquely swollen It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, a brilliant idea buried in mountains of dull dialogue. (I was going to call it pedestrian, but that would be unsuitable for a road movie.) Then Russians, The Flim-Flam Man, a not-bad con movie with George C. Scott and Guess Who's Coming for Dinner, for good or ill, and again with the redundant dialogue. What Rose could have done with a good editor or co-writer!

Back to Russians: I have seen criticism of this movie on a political basis; that it establishes a moral equivalency between the US and the Soviet Union. This is the kind of irony that's hard to pull off. To judge this film that way is to make exactly the same mistake made by the hysterical ninnies in the movie. This movie is not about dreaded Soviet invaders. (Why is it that today's conservatives can't remember that Ronald Reagan's dream was not to defeat the Soviets, but to negotiate disarmament with them?) The movie is about a poor cluck who has an idiot for a boss, and idiot who made a problem (running the sub aground) which he now has to fix. Clearly, they have no interest in ideology or conquest. Arkin and his crewmates are just trying to keep their heads down and get their jobs done--just like anyone else in this predicament. Soviet Communism was not like a terrorist cell, or some other tiny group of fanatics. It was a huge bureaucracy, and the process of surviving under one of those is universal and essentially apolitical.

And it is good to see Norman Jewison unafraid of letting broad actors do their broad stuff. Paul Ford, Tessie O'Shea, Ben Blue (forever chasing his horse "Beatrice"), Jonathan Winters, Michael J. Pollard--this is one of the biggest servings of ham ever put on film. Today, directors mostly have two modes: (a) fear of actors, so they are never given an opportunity to do what they can, because their performance has been cut into tiny shards of film, and composited like a Byzantine mosaic; or (b) over-solicitousness of actors, so that the camera zooms in on each quivering eyelid and pulsing cheek muscle in long-long takes of nothingness. Jewison and his actors were old enough to remember the last stages of vaudeville (Jewison started in television variety programming) and knew that actors like these need space and time to do what they can do. Then Jewison places Brian Keith as the quiet, still center of the movie which heightens all the lunacy around him.

Incidentally, this is one of the few films or plays (The Importance of Being Earnest is the most important example) that observes the Rob Lockhart Terminal Title Drop Rule (by which rule, once the title is stated, the film, play, novel, what-have-you Must End Immediately). In the case of Russians, it's hilarious.

And--I can testify from seeing the film with audiences over the years--the movie still stimulates laughter. Laughter--how can I explain what that was...See, in the old days, in comedies, instead of people merely performing bodily functions or saying the baby words for them (which excites hysterical laughter in 2-year-olds of all ages), they actually did things that were funny and made you laugh, which Wikipedia says is "an audible expression or the appearance of happiness or an inward feeling of joy (laughing on the inside)."

Oh yeah, joy.

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