Most of the tributes written about the late Alan Arkin focus on the serpentine scene he did with Peter Falk in “The In-Laws.” While the movie is one of my favorites, a top ten on any list of great comedies, and the sequence is hysterical, there’s another I love even more.
It’s from his first movie, “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.” Directed by Norman Jewison, it boasted an all-star cast, including Carl Reiner, Eva Marie Saint, Jonathan Winters, Paul Ford, Brian Keith, Tessie O’Shea, and Theodore Bikel. It’s about a Soviet submarine surveilling the east coast of the United States when it suddenly gets stuck on a sand bar. The captain (Bikel) sends a squad led by Lt. Rozanov (Arkin) ashore to Gloucester, Massachusetts, in order to steal some boats they can use to pull the sub free.
This took place in 1966, at the height of the cold war, when our government had instilled such fear of Russians in our citizenry — complete with duck-and-cover drills in school in case “The Commies” launched a nuclear missile at us — that the very notion of anyone from the enemy coming to America was greeted with enormous suspicion.
If you’ve never seen “The Russian Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming,” you can stream it for free on Hoopla, or for a few dollars on several other platforms. Even if you have seen it, going back for a second look (or twenty-second in my case) seems like a great way to spend a couple of hours.
In this scene, with the rest of their team hiding behind a dune, Rozanov and Kolchin (another Soviet sailor, played by John Phillip Law) approach a house owned by the Whittakers (Reiner and Saint) to get some information and borrow a car to find boats. While Reiner displays his brilliance as a straight man — he’d had plenty of experience working with Sid Caesar — it is Arkin’s accent and attitude that make the sequence work even better than Jewison later said he’d expected.
Keep an eye on Arkin’s anxious reaction when Reiner tells him there are no boats nearby, the screen door scratch when the Whittakers’ son Peter says, “Ask them if they’re Russians,” and the coup de grace, Arkin’s neck move after trying to explain that they’re actually Norwegians.
Previously on Harris Online…