Directed by Norman Jewison
Written by William Rose, from a novel by Nathaniel Benchley
Starring Carl Reiner, Eva Marie Saint, Alan Arkin, Brian Keith, Jonathan Winters, Paul Ford, Theodore Bikel
The Benchley family has a long history of having their books turned into film.. Robert Benchley is still considered one of the greatest of American humorists and both acted and made a series of short films that are still very funny today. His grandson, Peter Benchley, is known for a little book he wrote named Jaws, which was turned into a movie. And in between is Nathaniel Benchley, who wrote a cold war satire, The Off-Islanders, which was turned into the comedy The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming.
The story begins when a Soviet sub runs aground near a New England island. Not wanting an international incident on his hand, the captain (Theodore Bikel) sends his political officer Rozanov (Alan Arkin) to try to quietly find a boat to tow them into deep water. He gathers a small crew and lands on the island, running into Walt Whitaker (Carl Reiner), and being forced to reveal their identity due to a misunderstanding. Then things get crazy and the people of the town react to the threat, and the police chief (Brian Keith) tries to get a handle on it.
The movie mixes slapstick* and some nice human moments with what was a strong message that was somewhat surprising given it’s era.
This was Arkin’s first screen role, which got him an Oscar nomination. He’s excellent as a man trying to get a simple job done and is thwarted at every turn. Reiner has one of his better film parts, and Brian Keith shows the calm imperturbability that was his trademark.**
The most memorable piece of the film for me, was when the Russians meet up with a young boy. None spoke English and were given a phrase to use in case anyone was suspicious:
My brothers and I used to run around with that catchphrase whenever something went wrong.
In addition to Arkin, the film was also nominated for a best picture and two other Oscars, and won three Golden Globes. Director Norman Jewison has a long and successful film career, helming Best Picture winner In the Heat of the Night and many other films.
*The screenplay was written by William Rose, who also wrote It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad,Mad, World. In this case, though the slapstick works. (I’m not a fan of IAMMMMW.)
**Jonathan Winters is wasted. This isn’t surprising: Jonathan Winters was always wasted. His larger-than-life talent and improvisational genius made it hard to fit him into a scripted film.