Red coats vs red menace

Taking a shot at cold war stereotypes

Published: Feb 18 2014, 01:01:am

Monday, July 21, 1975
RUSSIAN ROULETTE. Written by Tom Ardies, Stanley Mann, Arnold Margolin, based on Ardies's novel Kosygin Is Coming. Music by Michael J. Lewis. Directed by Lou Lombardo. Running time: 93 minutes. Mature entertainment.
TOM ARDIES, A FORMER Vancouver newspaperman, wanted to arrange  a press screening of Russian Roulette. The author of Kosygin is Coming, the novel upon which the movie is based, Ardies asked the film's promoters why it wasn't being previewed for the critics in his home town.
    "Well," came the reluctant reply, "what if they don't like it?"
    In this game, you pays your money and you takes your chances. In Russian Roulette, you get a film that's not as bad as it might have been, but nowhere near as good as it should have been. Expect a 1950s cold-war thriller with a few good moments undercut by a lot of loose ends.
    Shot on location in Vancouver, where its story is set, Russian Roulette stars George Segal as suspended RCMP Corporal Timothy Shaver. It opens with a seedy Special Branch operative named Petapiece (Denholm Elliott) making him an offer he should have refused — reinstatement in exchange for a spot of cloak-and-dagger work.
    The Soviet Premier, Alexei Kosygin, is coming for a state visit. The KGB wants a certain anti-communist agitator off the streets. Cpl. Shaver is asked to sit on him for the duration. Shaver agrees, and in doing so sets in motion a blizzard of cross plots.
    Ardies's original book was the comic tale of a bumbler who makes good in spite of himself. The screenplay, credited to Ardies and two other writers, is not nearly as much fun. It suggests that Shaver is the kind of character that Alan Ladd used to pay, a rough cop with a touch of the cowboy in him.
     If Ardies's book had any rounded characters in it, they were thoroughly pulped for the movie. Painted on crisp cardboard are:
    * Vostick (Bo Brundin), a KGB colonel who pursues Shaver through downtown Vancouver in a military greatcoat, full beard and fur cap.
    * Henke (Val Avery), the silent, sinister agitator, who is a carbon copy of the Jack Moss character in the 1942 Journey into Fear.
    * "Rags" Ragulia (Richard Romulus), a Detroit hit man who comes complete with two-tone shoes.
    The film was produced by the kind of condescending moron who believes that if it's going to play in Peoria, the Canadian characters have to talk funny. English (Elliott) and Scots (Gordon Jackson, playing the role of a Vancouver police detective) accents are preferred, just so long as they are wrapped around expressions such as "piece of cake," (which is supposed to be the way Canadians say "no sweat").
    One of the best and worst things about the movie is Welsh-born composer Michael Lewis's score. His annoyingly loud, cabaret-band arrangement of Yankee Doodle (mob assassin Ragulia's theme) is awful.
    On the other hand, the Meadowlands melody, used during the pulse-quickening race against time (and the Kosygin motorcade) sequence, added to the power of a nice bit of tension building.
    (Meadowlands, composer Lev Knipper's patriotic Russian pop tune from the 1930s, is a well-worn bit of movie mood music. Director Norman Jewison used it to advantage in The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1967), as did Russ Meyer in his 1968 softcore sex epic Vixen!, set and filmed on Vancouver Island.)
    Lou Lombardo, a former film editor whose credits include director Robert Altman's Vancouver-made McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), is making his directorial debut here. As might be expected, his film works best when it is working visually. Its best-defined character, the extremist Henke, hasn't a single line of dialogue.
    Similarly, his action sequences, including the much-publicized shoot-out on the iconic copper roof of the Hotel Vancouver, are the film's highlights. Otherwise, Russian Roulette is a lightweight second feature designed for urban action houses and drive-ins.
    And one other thing. In Russian Roulette, Vancouver finally appears as Vancouver. Our city looks just fine through cinematographer Brian West's lenses. It really is too bad that it won't play well in the flatland town of Peoria. They would have enjoyed the scenery.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1975. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Its official motto is Maintiens le droit / Defend the Law. Unofficially, the RCMP's greatest success was maintaining the myth, a reputation for rectitude that was unchallenged for more than a century. As historian Daniel Francis tells us (in his 1977 book National Dreams: Myth, Memory and Canadian History), "Canadians are the only people in the world who recognize a police force as their proudest national symbol." Russian Roulette's ambiguous attitude to our "national symbol" anticipated the flood of revelations from investigative reporters, revisionist historians and government inquiries in the late 1970s. Current reports linking the Mounties to wholesale electronic surveillance reminded me that the modern RCMP owes its very existence to cloak-and-dagger work. As Francis noted in National Dreams (and expanded upon in his 2010 book Seeing Reds: The Red Scare of 1918-1919, Canada's First War on Terror), by the end of the First World War it had outlived its usefulness and faced dissolution. "What saved the force [then known as the Royal Northwest Mounted Police], and led directly to its reorganization early in 1920 as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, was an acute attack of national paranoia known as the Red Scare." Largely overlooked in the popular culture, the story of Red Coats versus Red Menace was hinted at in 1948's The Iron Curtain (based on Soviet cipher clerk Igor Gouzenko's defection to Canada in 1945). Though hardly a great movie, Russian Roulette is memorable for being the first to mock the myth. As for its director, Lou Lombardo, he would continue to edit successful features for other filmmakers, among them Robert Altman and Norman Jewison. His own directorial career ended with his second picture, P.K. and the Kid, which was filmed in 1982, but not released until 1987.