The Diamond Arm Review

The Soviet Union's biggest box-office hit of 1969, The Diamond Arm proves that English-language cinema certainly didn't hold a monopoly in Dayglo-dyed self-consciously trendy comedies - this could very easily be double-billed with the likes of one of the early Pink Panther films or just about anything starring Peter Sellers or directed by Richard Lester from the mid-to-late Sixties.

Mild-mannered, middle-aged economist Semyon Gorbunkov (Yuri Nikulin) goes on an Adriatic cruise to escape his wife and children for a week or so. On board the Mikhail Svetlov he shares a cabin with Gennady Kozodoyev (Andrei Mironov), whom we know is up to no good because we've already seen him plotting with his sidekick while still ashore and know in advance that "Damned melon!" is some kind of password.

Needless to say, though, it's Semyon who ends up slipping on a slice of melon when he reaches Istanbul, and his reaction is overheard by the smugglers, who naturally assume he's Gennady - so they knock him out, sprain his arm, and wrap it up in plaster, concealing diamonds, jewels and rare coins in the folds of the bandages. But unbeknown to them, Semyon is actually awake during this process, and immediately reports it to the ship's captain, who radios back to port. But, to his surprise, Semyon isn't stopped in customs - because the police realise that retrieving the contraband might be one thing, but capturing the whole gang is rather more attractive.

So they equip him with money and a gun (loaded with blanks) and send him out as bait - but poor Semyon also has to explain his new-found wealth to his wife (Nina Grebeshkova) after his nosy Patricia Routledge-like concierge (Nanna Mordyukova) - whose 'name and shame' policy towards her tenants involves erecting large billboards with slogans like SHAME ON THE DRUNKARD AND DEBAUCHER S.S.GORBUNKOV! outside the block of flats she supervises - starts spreading rumours to anyone who'll listen.

As that brief outline of the first quarter or so suggests, The Diamond Arm is very silly indeed, but once I'd got a handle on it I found it immensely endearing. For starters, it's never remotely dull - director Leonid Gaidai keeps it moving at a breakneck pace and has a keen eye for absurd set-pieces, whether it's Gennady's tap-dancing musical number on board ship, his red-hued dream about being attacked by Semyon's severed arm (still in its plaster cast) or, later, when he's convinced that he's having a religious experience (accompanied by Orthodox chanting so vivid you can almost smell the incense) and follows what he thinks is the risen Christ (actually an unassuming fisherman's boy in red trunks) as he walks across the water, only to stumble slightly and fall off the oil pipeline lurking just beneath the surface.

Gaidai even plays with Soviet cinematic convention - there's a delicious running gag involving a voice-over translation of the Istanbul smugglers' dialogue (voice-over is still commonly used in Russia as a cheap alternative to dubbing or subtitles), but the translation is either hopelessly inadequate (a lengthy sentence accompanied by copious hand gestures is rendered limply as "Shut up!") or gives up altogether ("There follows an untranslatable play on words with the use of many idiomatic expressions"). And later on, Gaidai winds up his audience a treat by interrupting the climactic action sequence not only with END OF PART ONE but also credits and even a scrolling synopsis of what we've seen so far (which is both needlessly overlong and out of focus) before resuming the proceedings - this happens a mere five minutes from the end.

Although a Western viewer will inevitably miss out on much of the verbal humour (I'm reliably informed that much of the dialogue has passed into Russian quotations dictionaries in much the same way that Casablanca's has into English ones), there are inadvertent pleasures galore in what the film inadvertently reveals about Soviet society and aspirations of the time. Semyon's wife, after welcoming him home, wants to know if he's met Sophia Loren or drunk Coca-Cola, while the concierge blames "that corruptive Western influence - all those elements of la dolce vita" on his strange behaviour since he returned from the cruise.

A fashion show, the unveiling of the latest 'Moskvitch' car and various other trappings of the burgeoning Soviet consumer society that was starting to emerge under Brezhnev provide fascinating period detail - even Semyon's police escort recognises the scent of Chanel No.5 on the note that the honey-trap (Svetlana Svetlichnaya) has sent him (the rather less worldly Semyon is less impressed, even after chewing part of it experimentally).

Ultimately, The Diamond Arm is as frothy and insubstantial as any of its Western equivalents, and there are all sorts of holes to be picked if one were feeling as po-faced as the man who complained that part two was too short during an early screening. Gaidai and his cast (unknown here, but clearly hugely popular there) have no particular ambitions beyond making us laugh at regular intervals and pull out every stop to make sure they succeed, even throwing in two remarkably catchy musical numbers along the way. I enjoyed it immensely, and I suspect a Russian speaker will have an even better time.

This is generally a very satisfying DVD. The print is in excellent condition - a tiny number of spots and scratches if one looks hard, but the surface is damn near pristine for the most part. The colours seem a tad muted considering the garish subject-matter, which I put down to the passage of time - though this isn't a major problem. Similarly, occasional image softness (this is very slight indeed, and probably only noticeable at all on bigger screens) seems squarely down to the original materials, as does the fact that shadows are very dark blue rather than pure black.

There's not a lot wrong with the transfer either - it's anamorphic, framed at the correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio, as sharp as the original materials permit, and with plenty of detail even in the shadows (rather too much at one point, in fact, as we can see that the "severed arm" in Gennady's dream is attached to a man otherwise dressed in black!). All in all, it's hard to imagine a film of this vintage and nationality looking much better.

The sound is the usual mono-into-5.1 remix - apart from the occasional directional sound, it's only really the music that benefits from a wider soundstage. The subwoofer has virtually nothing to do apart from imperceptibly beef up the acoustic bass that backs up much of the music and provide a few quiet rumbles during the car wash fight and when the helicopter flies overhead. Recording quality is acceptable, if a little tinny - it's impossible to tell whether this is down to the original materials or a by-product of the remix.

There's one serious (albeit extremely brief) mastering error at the 41-minute mark, when the policeman's two lines of dialogue have vanished (though they're still subtitled) - presumably the plan was to make them specifically directional (he takes Semyon by surprise from behind), but something must have gone wrong at the mixing stage.

I dipped into the English track - technically, it's adequate, but prospective viewers should be warned that it completely misses the voice-over gag by leaving the Istanbul smugglers speaking untranslated gibberish (which also misses out on a couple of plot points) - so I'd stick to the Russian.

Subtitles are offered in the usual Babel of languages - the English ones are absolutely fine, with the proviso that some of the dialogue has wordplay that's pretty much untranslatable (let's just say the subtitles put in a brave effort!).

Given the popularity of the film, it comes as no surprise that there are plenty of extras, even though some of them are a bit on the thin side (not really Ruscico's fault, as Gaidai and many of his actors are now dead and were consequently unable to contribute). As ever with Ruscico's extras, the recorded language is Russian and there are optional subtitles available in English, French, Dutch, Spanish and Italian, while the text-based material is available in English, French and Russian.

A stills gallery contains ten images from the film, selectable via thumbnails, while a set of filmographies covers director Leonid Gaidai, writers Moris Slobodskoy and Yakov Kostyukovsky, cameraman Igor Chernykh, production designer Felix Yasukevich, composer Alexander Zatsepin and actors Svetlana Svetlichnaya, Yuri Nikulin, Nina Grebeshkova, Andrei Mironov, Anatoly Papanov and Nanna Mordyukova. Unusually for Ruscico, all these filmographies come complete with a short text biography (ranging from half a page to three), and there are further buried goodies in the form of trailers for Andrei Rublyov, The Cold Summer of 1953, The Commissar, The Gypsy Camp Vanishes Into The Blue and, rather more substantially, interviews with Yasukevich and Grebeshkova.

The interview with Felix Yasukevich runs just under six minutes, and focuses entirely on Leonid Gaidai's work, kicking off with a story about how he made his mark with a short film The Dog Barbos and the Unusual Race (including a clip of a decidedly Benny Hill-style speeded-up chase in which three men are pursued by a dog with a grenade in its mouth) before teaming up with Yasukevich to shoot five films together. Sadly, Yasukevich has little to say about The Diamond Arm besides a somewhat rambling anecdote about how he had to transform the central Asian port of Baku into a convincing Arabian location because international location shooting was prohibitively expensive - material that's essentially duplicated in the second interview.

This, featuring lead actress Nina Grebeshkova, is much longer (twenty minutes) and much more substantial - not least because she's not only the only one of the four leads still alive, but she's also Leonid ("Lyonya") Gaidai's widow. She gets off to a great start by admitting that the writers were well aware that the basic story is nonsensical (exporting from the Soviet Union was a notoriously bureaucratic nightmare, but the smugglers would have had no problem bringing the treasure in!) - but decided to go along with it anyway. She then discusses her casting (she was surprised to be asked, as she didn't consider herself a comedienne), Gaidai's battles with the authorities (who had a po-faced habit of treating throwaway gags as political comment), the lead actors' friendly rivalry, the cast and crew's disappointment when they heard they weren't shooting abroad, and the difficulties encountered in securing a camel in Baku (which is why the same camel appears constantly in the opening scenes). The final third of the interview is a reflection on what kind of man her husband was and how she's trying to keep his flame alive by giving interviews like this.

That's it for the contemporary interviews, but Ruscico have also dug up archive pieces on the three male leads. The best by far is the twelve-minute black-and-white piece Yuri Nikulin - A Circus Actor, which includes plenty of archive footage of Nikulin's knockabout stage act, very much in the tradition of Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati, and none the worse for that. This footage is counterpointed by a somewhat mournful voiceover about the sheer amount of hard graft that goes into giving the audience a few minutes of pleasure.

The two other pieces are much shorter - Andrei Mironov gets a two-minute tribute in the form of a song-and-dance number from the stage play The Bedbug, which cuts to a shot of his tombstone, while Anatoly Papanov gets an equally brief black-and-white silent career overview with intertitles providing a running commentary on his life and achievements, extracts from stage and screen performances, and stills of enough elaborate make-up jobs to suggest he could give Lon Chaney a run for his money.

'Making the Film' is listed first in the extras, but it's at the bottom of the pile for overall interest - running roughly one-and-a-half minutes, it consists of a knockabout fight scene from towards the end (in black-and-white 4:3), which concludes with a voice-over informing us that it's Leonid Gaidai's new film, complete with a brief shot of the "master of eccentric comedy" giving directions.

All in all, this is exactly the kind of film I subscribed to the complete Ruscico collection for - I'd never have bought it individually in a million years (in fact, I'd been dreading it: the garish cover and accompanying blurb made it look more like an ordeal than anything else), and despite its fame in Russia I'd never heard of it before - it's not mentioned in any of my books on Soviet film history, which have a rather sniffy attitude towards popular cinema. But I've long argued that you can often get more out of a light comedy like The Diamond Arm (especially three decades on, where insignificant details can become strangely fascinating to social and cultural historians), than you can out of a dozen more highly acclaimed but essentially hermetic arthouse films. For those who want a very different take on Soviet cinema and several huge belly laughs into the bargain, I can't recommend it highly enough.

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