The Commie-Knockers


What a delightful treat to become re-acquainted with Norman Jewison’s charmingly hilarious 1966 romp, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, now on Blu-Ray from the comrades at Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios..

This picture was da bomb (in that good Nineties-speak way) in 1966, THE comedy to see that year, and millions of Americans (and “feriners”) did; another box-office wallop for UA (with the Bonds, the Beatles pics, The Great Escape, The Pink Panther, etc., UA  really was all that!).

The movie, based on Nathaniel Benchley’s humorous novel, The Off-Islanders, draws much of its mojo from two contemporary (but diverse) comedy hits, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (another UA smash) and Dr. Strangelove;  the plot involves the less lethal aspects of the latter, and much of the slapstick/mirth of the former.  To this point, the producers even hired the Stanley Kramer pic’s screenwriter (the wonderful William Rose), and cast some of Mad‘s super-roster of comics, notably lead Carl Reiner and Jonathan Winters, plus Paul Ford and Ben Blue (even the master cartoonist Jack Davis, who drew the iconic IaMMMMW poster was recruited back to service for RUSSIANS).  To bolster the already formidable thesp power, RUSSIANS added Eva Marie Saint (as Reiner’s savvy wife), Theodore Bikel, Michael J. Pollard, the brilliant character actors Doro Merande, Parker Fennelly, Vaughn Taylor, Richard Schall, Cliff Norton, Larry D. Mann, Philip Coolidge, and, prominently, Brian Keith (a funny non-funnyman in essentially the Mad World Spencer Tracy role – a weary but less larcenous top cop).  Making their screen debuts in a major motion picture were the excellent and underrated John Phillip Law and the magnificent Alan Arkin, who received an Oscar nomination (one of the flick’s five Academy nods) for his portrayal as Rozanov, the flustered Russian officer determined to makes sense of American mores, and, thus, doomed before he starts.

The plot takes place during the post-Labor Day summer weekend on Gloucester Island, in Massachusetts (Eureka, CA ably standing in for the picturesque New England coastal community).  An over-zealous Russian commander (Bikel) determined to sneak a peek at the U.S. gets his nuclear sub stuck on a sandbar.  Arkin, Law and a handful of sailors attempt to arrange for some fishing boats to help pull the vessel off safely and back out to sea, but Cold War mindset sets the town into Pearl Harbor mode in a very uproarious fashion.  Indeed, the script (as concocted by Rose, who authored the classic Brit comedy The Lady-Killers), creates a mini-society of Ealing-type characters reacting to an outlandish situation; but, since, they’re Americans, the response is less droll and more batshit crazy.  And there you have it.

Reiner’s irritable Walt Whittaker, his wife and two children are packing to head home to New York (he’s a successful musical-comedy scribe suffering from writer’s block and “damp!”).  “We’ll never go away anywhere again, I promise,” purrs wife Saint to her complaining spouse.  Their nine-year-old, a small fry version of what we today call a MAGAt (‘cepting, it’s the 1960s, so they hate Russians) blurts out his desire to kill them all – a request mirrored by the town’s lunatic gun-owners (or, simply, the town).  How it all works out amiably was kind of bold then, and almost lovely now.  But, again, very funny.

For director Jewison, it was the final kiss-off to years of formulaic TV and movie fare (albeit fine ones), and a further leap into the big-screen big-time (RUSSIANS was preceded by The Cincinnati Kid, and followed by In the Heat of the Night).  Reiner, superb in a rare leading role, makes the viewing bittersweet in lieu of his recent passing on June 29, at age 98 (sadly, composer Johnny Mandel, who supplies the jaunty, perky score left us the same day, age 96).  It’s Arkin’s show, however, and it’s a virtuoso comic performance.  Nevertheless, my two favorite scenes are Arkinless.  One is a bug-eyed Morande, bound and gagged on a cupboard shelf while aged hubby Parker Fennelly quietly and unbeknownst to her plight, calmly has his breakfast; when finally cognizant of the situation, his deadpan response is “Muriel, what cha doing hanging up there on the wall?”  The packed house in 1966 howled at this for a full half-minute, one of the biggest yuks I ever recall at the movies.

The second sequence is when Reiner and telephone operator Tessie O’Shea are tied up together, and attempt an escape plan.  Popcorn was flying out of the bags, people were so doubled up with laughter during this moment (both scenes have lost none of their bite, I can happily report).

The movie was luxuriously shot in Panavision and DeLuxe Color by the great Joe Biroc.  He really captured the beauteous flavor and essence of a brisk late summer New England dawn, even if it turns out to be a “red” one.

For me, RUSSIANS was a deal-with-it experience.  After years in the Catskills, where the local bijou was a mere fifteen minute walk, we had re-located to Budd Lake, NJ – with no theater nearby.  We were, therefore, at the mercy of our parents – well, their cars.  I was also additionally disturbed to discover that admission price was now seventy-five cents!

The Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray of THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING is quite nice, perhaps a bit warm and a tad soft; that said, it’s also perfectly acceptable, and near-pristine 35MM quality (as is the mono audio).  A Making Of featurette, hosted by Jewison, is included as a neat extra, plus, the theatrical trailer.

From a time when we could still enjoy the foibles of our “enemies,” before both sides sired monsters, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING remains a Sixties rose-colored tableau that practically demands the accompaniment of “Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime.”

THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios. CAT # K1500. SRP:  $29.95.



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