Saturday, March 26, 2011

"Алан Аркин"--A Look at Alan Arkin's Film Debut

NPR recently interviewed the great screen actor Alan Arkin, whose memoir, "Improvised Life", has just been released.

Arkin has entertained movie audiences for over 45 years.  Many contemporary viewers only know Arkin from his more recent, "curmudgeonly" roles like his Oscar-winning Grandpa in "Little Miss Sunshine", and others such as "Gattaca", "Sunshine Cleaning", "Edward Scissorhands", "Get Smart", "City Island", and "Marley and Me" and many TV appearances.

But I think to fully appreciate Arkin as a screen performer, one must go back to his early roles which made him an icon of the bemused, and a brilliantly skilled character actor.

Try to find "The In-Laws", or "Catch-22", or the scary "Wait Until Dark", or (a favorite) "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter" in which he plays the deaf border of a troubled Southern household.

And, especially, the film I will look at below, his debut, "The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming."

In the interview, Arkin looks back at his childhood dream of acting, his boyhood passion for the movies, and his risky move from New York to Chicago in 1960 to join the now-famous Second City Comedy improvisational troupe.  Arkin thrived on improv, although at first he thought he was terrible and would be fired. 

A quote from the interview that summed up the experience will inspire young performers:
"Even so, the unpredictable nature of improvisation meant Arkin had to learn to accept that not every sketch would be a hit — and that bombing onstage wasn't necessarily a bad thing. 'It's improvisation, and some are terrific, and some are terrible' he says. 'The ability to fail was an extraordinary privilege and gift. ... You don't learn anything without failing.' "

You can listen to the entire interview, and find a transcript, by clicking this link:

In spite of winning a Tony Award in 1963 for "Enter Laughing", Arkin developed a dislike for the stage, calling it boring, and "torture", having to play the same role the same way night after night.  And so, when Norman Jewison saw Arkin in the Broadway production of "Luv", Arkin jumped at the chance when he was called to screen-test for a new film.

In the screen test, Arkin had to improvise the role of a Russian Secret Police Agent traveling with the Bolshoi Ballet, with Jewison off camera.  Arkin's improv chops, and his skill with dialect, landed him the role of Lt. Rozanov, a Russian Submarine officer whose ship runs aground on a New England island, and soon throws the residents into a panic, in what would become the hugely popular "The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming".

"The Russians are Coming..." (1966) became Arkin's film debut and his first Oscar Nomination.  (His second came two years later for "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter", and he waited 38 years for his next nomination, and win, for "...Sunshine".)  It's a film that has been sort of neglected these days, but is so bursting with good humor and wonderful character insights, that viewers should gladly re-discover it.

The film was a raucous satire reminiscent of screenwriter William Rose's "It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World".  His script here was more focused, and plausible, and the timing could not have been better.  The Cold War gripped the country.  Moviegoers laughed nervously at "Dr. Strangelove", about nuclear annihilation, just two years before.  America was in a space race with the Soviets.  American schoolchildren were conducting Atom bomb drills.  There was mistrust all around.

This comedy reflected and neatly lampooned the paranoia, misinformation, and ignorance on both sides, made us laugh at our outrageousness, and left a feeling of hopeful coexistence, even friendship. Looking at it now, we recognize the misinformation that still plagues us, the distortions that spread like wildfire, and the foibles we still share as humans.  It is a comedy with a gentle poke, and it is amazingly relevant, even if the filmmaking style is 1960's sitcom.  Here, that comfortableness works.

Arkin shares the lead with Carl Reiner (a great comedian and writer and Rob's dad).  Arkin's amazing facility with the Russian language, his humorous use of accent in his English dialog, and his wild swings from calm to outburst, which were hilarious and original, put Arkin in the pantheon of superstars.

Reiner, as "Whittaker, Walt"  heads a wonderful cast of comics, including Jonathan Winters, Brian Keith, and Paul Ford (all staples of 1960's movie comedy, and all funny people in their own right).  Eva Marie Saint, still popular a decade after her turn in "On The Waterfront", plays Reiner's wife, and voice of reason. 

Ben Blue, a famous silent film star, plays the Town Drunk, trying to run after his uncooperative horse, so that he can ride to to save the villagers,  in one of several madcap subplots that occur simultaneously during the one Sunday the film takes place.  These are all directed for utmost comic effect, and edited for maximum energy and laughs.

Truly, the sequence which finds Reiner tied up with the town's telephone operator, trying to escape by hopping together with her, is one of the biggest, most sustained laughs in the film.  In fact, sight gags abound amid the sharpness of the satire, and the humor softens the blow, but does not diminish the message.

John Phillip Law is appealing as Arkin's fellow sailor who develops a romance with the Whittaker family babysitter.  The babysitter herself was not a trained actress, but was found doing an ad for American Airlines, as a "stewardess".  

Arkin holds the picture together as mayhem explodes all around him.  In an impressive feat of writing and direction, the climactic moment finds the townspeople and the Russian submarine pointing their firearms at each other in a protracted moment, filled with suspense, which captured the cold war in all its mistrust and fear. 

The film even gives us an honest-to-goodness cliffhanger, a precursor to the spirit of the disaster film:  A little boy, a church steeple, and a human pyramid save the day, demonstrating that people pulling together in a crisis can learn to live together and even like each other.

Before this resolution, we have laughed at panic all around: Russian soldiers, dressed in "American" clothes they swipe from a dry-cleaner, move in a pack and speak (heavily accented) English in unison; the elderly postmistress and her friend terrorize the deputies by tearing down the street in their scooter; the hawkish townspeople try to "get organized" while the bartender opens the tavern providing everyone pays cash;   Riener tries to find help on an old two-wheeler bike and winds up rolling around the floor tied to the phone operator.... 

But why go on?  You have to see for yourself. 

Director Norman Jewison, in an interview on the DVD, tells a tremendous story about his experience watching the film in Moscow, as the crowd burst into applause and tears.

Alan Arkin in his career created unforgettable characters, but none in a film with as much heart and laughs, and pointed satire and clear-eyed reflection of American foolishness.

I thank him for having honed his improvisational skills to land a role in this landmark comedy.


  1. I see TRACTRAC as a film of it's time - for the style of comedy as well as the content - which does make it difficult to translate to a modern audience, however it's worth persevering for the madcap energy.

  2. Ben, it is definitely a product of its times. I fear modern viewers lack the historical background to understand why this film had an impact. Even so, there's enough of the madcap, as you accurately describe, to make most viewers smile... For Americans, the townspeople are not much different from today's Congress.... :)