A political satire in the form of a farce, this is truly a classic movie. As a farce it is not as funny as flat-out comedy would be, but there are noble intentions on view here, and the classic critical line came true for me: “I laughed, I cried, I wet my pants.”
A Russian submarine, patrolling American waters, runs aground off the coast of Gloucester Island, Massachusetts. The crew is terrified that they will be spotted and bombed. A small group of nine (including Alan Arkin in his first film and John Philip Law) is sent ashore to find a boat large enough to get the sub off the shoal before daylight, but it is already dawn, so lots of luck. The Americans, represented first by a family consisting of a father (Carl Reiner), mother (Eva Marie Saint), and two small children, are just as paranoid as the Russians. The complications come thick and fast, but everyone on view is basically a human-type person, even Paul Ford as the stubborn, loud-mouth head of the local American Legion Post (I would have jailed him to shut him up), so you feel sure that all will turn out okay. Doesn’t mean though that you won’t laugh yourself silly a couple times and have wet cheeks at the end.
The remarkable thing about this film is that it was made at the height of the Cold War, yet basically affirms the humanity of both sides. One memorable scene sort of capsulizes the movie’s God’s-Eye view: Jonathan Winters, as Deputy Norman Jonas, in the thick of a huge argument among the townsmen, throws out his arms and cries, “For God’s sake, why is it we can’t learn to live together?” One of his cohorts runs to him and says, “You’re right, Norman!” And Norman slugs him hard right in the jaw.
The movie is full of memorable performances. I especially enjoyed Tessie O’Shea as the town’s switchboard operator, Doro Merande as the first in town to open her door to the Russians (and start screaming), Brian Keith as the Chief of Police, and Ben Blue as the Paul Revere of the piece. The DVD that I got from Netflix also had a 28-minute behind-the-scenes story by Norman Jewison, who both produced and directed. The film has music by Johnny Mandel, the DP was Joseph Biroc, and the screenplay was written by William Rose, based on a novel “The Off Islanders” by Nathaniel Benchley. A film that every movie lover should see.