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The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming
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The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming

United Artists and director Norman Jewison had a major hit in 1966 with The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, a send-up of American-Soviet relations. A Russian sub commander, wishing to get a better glimpse of the U.S., runs his vessel aground near a sleepy New England vacation island. The commander sends a small crew ashore, led by Lieutenant Rozanov, to find a power boat strong enough to tow the sub off the sandbar before an international incident occurs. A series of hilarious misunderstandings and near disasters occurs as one by one the villagers realize their tiny island has been "invaded."

The large ensemble cast and zany plotting are clearly inspired by the success of Stanley Kramer's frenzied satire of greed and corruption, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). But critics at the time noted that this movie had much more fully developed and sympathetic characters and so was able to achieve its comic aims with more narrative integrity without losing any of the hilarity. As a result, it has much of the feel of the classic 1940s satires created by Preston Sturges. The New York Times called it "a rousingly funny - and perceptive - motion picture about a desperately unfunny world situation...The cold war was owed us all a good laugh for a long, long time."

A lot of the credit goes to the outstanding ensemble cast, especially Alan Arkin in his film debut. Already a success on the Broadway stage and as a comedy performer with the legendary Second City troupe, Arkin earned an Academy Award® nomination for Best Actor as the alternately polite and menacing Russian military man trying to squeeze through a bad situation while dealing with an island population he finds "complete and utter not sane." The film also got Oscar® nods for Best Picture, Best Editing (for future film director Hal Ashby), and Best Screenplay.

The movie was based on the comic novel The Off-Islanders by Nathaniel Benchley, son of famed humorist Robert Benchley. Ironically, the same New England coastline setting (although the film was actually shot in northern California) would be menaced by another type of threat from off shore in a novel by Nathaniel's son Peter that became the blockbuster movie Jaws (1975).

Arkin went on to a long and distinguished career that varied between playing heavies, comic roles, dramas, and unusual character parts. Few people know that he is also a talented writer (of children's books - Tony's Hard Work Day, Some Fine Grampa! - and self-help accounts like Halfway Through the Door: First Steps on a Path Toward Enlightenment), an Off-Broadway director, a member of the folk group The Tarriers and the composer and performer of a hit 1956 tune "The Banana Boat Song."

Producer/Director: Norman Jewison
Screenplay: William Rose, based on the book The Off-Islanders by Nathaniel Benchley
Cinematography: Joseph F. Biroc
Editing: Hal Ashby
Art Direction: Robert F. Boyle
Original Music: Johnny Mandel
Cast: Carl Reiner (Walt Whitaker), Eva Marie Saint (Elspeth Whitaker), Alan Arkin (Rozanov), Theodore Bikel (Submarine Captain), Jonathan Winters (Norman Jones), Brian Keith (Sheriff Mattocks).
C-126m. Letterboxed.

by Rob Nixon

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