<p>When a sightseeing Soviet commander runs his submarine aground off the New England coast, the crew's attempts to find a boat to dislodge them almost start World War III! </p>
<p>Russian Lt. Rozanov (Alan Arkin) and his crew hit the beaches of Massachusetts unaware of the panic they're about to start. Despite the Russians' harmless intentions, the folks in town think a full-scale Soviet invasion has been launched! What's worse, their police chief (Brian Keith) has left his hysterical assistant (Jonathan Winters) in charge...and the one man who knows the truth (Carl Reiner) is only stirring up more chaos!</p>
In 1966, director Norman Jewison made what was at the time, a rather enlightened film with 'The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.' In the middle of the Cold War, Jewison delivered a raucous comedy starring Carl Reiner about a small New England coastal town besieged by Russians who had accidentally run their submarine aground. Their ensuing action, led by Alan Arkin as Lt. Rozanov (in his first feature film lead role), resulted in a kind of concentrated mass hysteria that was, in many ways, reminiscent of the Cuban Missile Crisis the entire nation had gone through years earlier.
What made 'The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming' so progressive was the way it actively sought to humanize its characters – Americans and Russians alike. Written by famed screenwriter William Rose ('It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,' 'The Ladykillers'), the film explores the anxieties of a protracted ideological conflict between two Superpowers and the dangers of gung-ho Americanism through a madcap, farcical lens that manages comment on the nonsensical nature of both without resorting to haughty finger wagging.
The narrative begins by focusing intently on Walt Whittaker (Reiner), his wife Elspeth (Eva Marie Saint), and young son Pete, played by Sheldon Collins (they have a daughter too, but she spends most of the film either asleep or in the care of the Whittaker's babysitter Alison (Andrea Dromm). The high-strung New York playwright can't be bothered with his son's observation of men with guns gathering around the garage of the family's rented beach house. Before long, Rozanov is at their door, claiming to be a group of Norwegians in need of a boat. But the subterfuge doesn't last long, and soon the Whittakers are the unwitting hostages of a reluctant Rozanov, who assigns his right hand man Alexei (John Phillip Law) the task of holding the family captive while he and a small group go to town in search of a boat.
Right away, the film takes shots at conventional beliefs held about the Soviets and Americans alike – especially when it comes to Pete's expectation that his father engage in physical aggression toward the enemy. It flips the notion that Soviets were inherently hostile and posed a significant threat to the American way of life, and that, as their enemy, violence was the only recourse left to not only the mighty U.S. Military but also to an average citizen, like Walt Whittaker. But the narrative also opens a discussion on the Cold War that painted the Soviets as far less antagonistic and the Americans as equally culpable in the exacerbation of tensions between the two countries.
Eventually, the Russians make their way into town, and after running afoul of an elderly couple running the gas station/post office the whole town is up in arms. Thanks in large part to Fendall Hawkins (Paul Ford), and old war vet of limited experience, who has taken it upon himself to rouse the sleepy coastal town into a state of near panic the townspeople are itching for a fight. At that point, 'The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming' descends into hilarity, as the residents become progressively more frantic, and Rozanov's options become increasingly limited.
Although the film is primarily concerned with Walt and the rest of the Whittaker clan, the narrative is divided amongst some other big names like Brian Keith ('The Parent Trap') as Police Chief Link Mattocks, and Jonathan Winters as his high-strung deputy, Norman Jonas. But it also makes an attempt at building Rozanov's character, as he scrambles to keep his men safe, without engaging with the agitated townspeople, who, by this point, are out for blood, and are rapt by the mounting hysteria surrounding the Russian's bloodless non-invasion. In addition, back at the Whittaker's rented beach house, Alison and Alexei not only find common ground, but also a possible love connection, as it becomes clear the young sailor is as uninterested in conflict as his commanding officer.
Naturally, the tension between the townspeople and the Russians come to a head, when the Russian Captain (Theodore Bikel), convinced his men are being held prisoner, threatens to take action. It's the only moment where the lingering threat of violence becomes suddenly real. The tonal shift the film takes grounds what has been a chaotic, screwball comedy in the tensions of the day. The moment's sense of pending conflict results in a symbolic stalemate, underlining the apprehensions felt on both sides, without vilifying or extoling either.
In the end, 'The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming' is met with a charming denouement that, despite its saccharine nature, delivers a fulfilling, heartfelt conclusion to a very funny film. Featuring fantastic performances from Reiner, Saint, Winters, and a star-making turn for Arkin, Jewison's little comedy about the invasion that never came isn't quite as biting or satirical as 'Dr. Strangelove,' but its amiable, humanistic nature makes for a compelling and entertaining watch nonetheless.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming' comes from Kino Lorber as a single 25GB Blu-ray disc in the standard keepcase. The insert features the film's original theatrical poster with art by Jack Davis. The disc is free from previews, but does contain an enlightening interview with director Norman Jewison, as well as the theatrical trailer.
'The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming' has been given a nice looking HD upgrade that delivers a detailed, colorful image with plenty of depth. Fine features are on display throughout, but are most prominent during close-up. Wider shots still present a significant amount of detail, but to a lesser degree, as some persistent film grain can occasionally reduce the amount of detail that is shown. Otherwise, textures and background elements look great, as the film captures the feel of a New England coastal town, despite being filmed on the West Coast.
Contrast is high throughout, and although there are no dark sequences, the image displays great shadow delineation and rich, inky blacks in shadows and interiors. There is no hint of banding anywhere in the image and the darker elements are completely free from crush. White levels are handled very well. The image never looks blown out or too hot. Additionally, color is vivid and bright, with the film taking on a slightly blue palette that enhances the New England-y feel of the setting and looks very nice when the image heads out to sea.
Aside from a few issues where the source may have been damaged, this is a quality transfer that brings out the best in a very funny film.
The disc has been given a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mix that delivers a sometimes shallow, but otherwise pleasant listening experience. For the most part, the dialogue sound rich and clear, with the accents coming through with great precision and there's never any chance of missing a punch line. The dialogue is balanced well against the musical score and the sound effects, which tend to drop slightly when someone is talking – which isn't much of an issue.
Occasionally, however, the sound can be a tad anemic, leaving the score and sometimes the sound of gunfire or pratfalls to fall somewhat flat. This inconsistent, though, as the final confrontation between Walt and Rozanov delivers an impressive-sounding burst of gunfire that heightens the tension in the scene dramatically. Additionally, there are some atmospheric elements that work to enhance the overall feel and believability of the setting. While these elements aren't spread around much, they do generate additional depth in the audio that is appreciated.
This is above average sound that makes the most of its various elements and highlights the dialogue very well.
Making-of Featurette: Hosted by Producer/Director Norman Jewison (HD, 23 min.) – Jewison delivers a lengthy interview that could double for a director's commentary, considering the amount of information he gives on the making of the film. Mixing anecdotal accounts with some technical aspects, this is a terrific special feature that provides greater insight into the making of the film as well as the impact that it had at the time.
Trailer (SD, 2 min.)
'The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming' is an entertaining comedic romp with a surprisingly effective political agenda. Although it doesn't take itself too seriously, the film does treat its message with sincerity. But the film does not venture into earnestness, nor does it ever act glib. Instead, it relies on terrific performances from Carl Reiner and Alan Arkin, to anchor a madcap comedy in the solemnity of the Cold War, and still come away with such a funny product. With great video, good audio, and a fantastic interview with director Norma Jewison, this one comes recommended.