Directed by Norman Jewison
Screenplay by William Rose, based upon the novel by Nathaniel Benchley
Starring Carl Reiner, Eva Marie Saint, Alan Arkin, Brian Keith, Jonathan Winters, Paul Ford and Theodore Bikel
The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming might’ve been nominated for Best Picture – and Best Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay, and a couple others – but it had zero chance of winning. And by zero, I mean zero. There’s always one or two of those kind of films in any Best Picture race and in 1966 The Russians are Coming was it.
One reason was history: Since the beginning, only six comedies have won the Oscar for Best Picture. Ironically, at the time Russians came out, it would’ve had a better chance than it does today, because at that time five comedies had won Best Picture. In the fifty years since, just one. In a very real way its zero chance of winning in 1966 has steadily fallen below zero since.
But history isn’t the only problem – the bigger one is quality. Yes, the movie is a comedy, which is problematic; that it’s not a great comedy is something else. If it were great, or better-paced, or had an ending that befit its premise, or really reveled in the sheer lunacy and silliness of the premise, then maybe it gets over and wins the big one. Or, has a chance at the big one. But as it doesn’t, it didn’t.
What’s It About
Late one night, a Russian sub runs aground on a sandbar off an island in New England. How does this happen? Well, the sub-captain’s never seen America and wants a closer look. His plan to get unstuck is to send a small contingent ashore, where they will hopefully be undetected as they steal a boat they can use to drag themselves free and put them on their way again. Nos surprise, things do not go according to play and, because it’s the height of the Cold War, the residents of the island think the invasion is on, and comedy ensues.
What’s Good About It?
The performances, mostly; they’re what keeps it afloat. Alan Arkin is only third-billed – it was his first screen performance – and he’s quietly great, and convincing, as the leader of the Russian shore-party. Some might watch it and think his performance is too quiet, or low-key, but that he’s not big and loud, in contrast to some around him, is what makes his performance – and the others – sing. It seems fair he secured his first Oscar nod for this role, although it also seems fair he didn’t win.
Just as good, is John Phillip Law as another of the shore-party — Kolchin. He’s charming and innocent and sweet – some might call him romantic – and you can’t help but feel he’s truly genuine in his portrayal.
Gloriously-broad, and therefore marginally-unrealistic, is Paul Ford. Best known to film-goers as Mayor Shinn from The Music Man – his most memorable line from that movie being, “What your phraseology!” – is fantastic as the blow-hard, over-the-hill war-hawk, who can’t wait to bring the fight to the Russians, even if he couldn’t possibly fight the Russians. And, even if there isn’t a fight to be had.
What’s Not So Good About it?
It’s too long. If you ask John Waters, or Woody Allen, I’m sure you’d be told that comedy works best at 90 minutes. At 103 minutes, Dr. Strangelove pushes the bounds of this; The Russians are Coming positively breaks the mold, coming in at 126. At 90 or 95 minutes, I could see Russians being uproarious and breakneck – stuffed with jokes. Stretch those same jokes out over 126, and things can drag. 
Similarly, the pace of the film is languid. You could argue pace and the length are the same thing, but to do so ignores the subtle difference. Length could refer to scenes running too long, that just go on longer than they need to, containing extraneous information or characters, or whatever. Pace, on the other hand, is more about the flow of the scenes within themselves, and from scene to scene. If the problem was there were just too many scenes, that would be one thing – that would be too long. But when the problem is that there are the right number of scenes, they just each have too much space in them, that’s about the pace. And, coming back to it, the problem with The Russians are Coming is that even in the parts that require a bit of manic lunacy, it’s too slow.
Additionally, the film doesn’t build properly. In comedy, the action – or the plot – should speed up as the films comes to the climax. Or, it should double-down on itself. Russians? The pace is the same throughout – setting up the story and finishing it all hits at the same pace. I hate to refer back to Dr. Strangelove, because every film will naturally pale in comparison, but it’s instructive that the longer the film goes on, the more heightened the story becomes. Russians? If consistency were a virtue, it’d be a virgin.
Elsewhere, the camera work is frequently indifferent, which is odd given at other times it’s frequently great. It’s as if the film can’t figure itself out – hell, that’s something that could be said about the film in general. It can’t figure itself out.
The biggest sin, though, is wasting Eva Marie Saint in the thankless role as Reiner’s wife. The only thing she has to do is be the stereotypical wife, without any agency of her own. Given the excellence she’s shown elsewhere – particularly North by Northwest – it’s a bit sad they couldn’t think of any better way to use her. After all, she was an Academy Award winner.
All I Don’t Do Is Win
Norman Jewison would follow up this picture with 1967’s Best Picture, In The Heat Of The Night. Aside from not being nominated here – in 1966 three of the films nominated for Best Picture failed to rate a directing nod, Jewison included – he would lose Best Director 1967 to another Best Picture/Best Director loser from 1966, Mike Nichols.
The title sequences here was designed by Pablo Ferro. While he’s certainly not as well-known as other title sequences auteurs, specifically Saul Bass, he’s done quite famous work in his own right. Notably, he did the credits for Dr. Strangelove. Aside from this, he did the trailer for A Clockwork Orange, and worked quite a bit with Hal Ashby. If you can find it, there is a documentary about him called, Pablo. I found it on Netflix, maybe you will, too.
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.
Also, don’t be afraid to have a look at the thing that inspired this, The Best Picture Project.
 Logical problem #1: they only ever look at boats that are too small to get the job done.
 Although, give the way our political leaders go bananas, maybe it’s not that unrealistic.
 The concept here is joke density. I wish I could say I came up with this concept – I got it from Glen Weldon of Pop Culture Happy Hour – but there is something of truth here. Good comedies are joke dense – The Russians are Coming could take the hint.
 Or excluded, as it were.