Some of my favourite films are those that cleverly combine crime with humour. Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry, for instance, a witty story about a man whom everybody seems to have been wanting to get rid of. Or—one of my favourite films, regardless of time and language and genre—I Soliti Ignoti, about a bunch of horribly inept thieves. Charade, How to Steal a Million… and, the latest to join the ranks, the Russian film Brilliantovaya Ruka (The Diamond Arm), which is about a man with an arm wrapped about with diamonds. And other gemstones, and gold.
This work calls itself a ‘screen novel’ and consists, as do so many novels, of not just the main body of the novel, but a prologue and an epilogue as well.
The prologue is a brief one. In a narrow street in Istanbul, two dodgy-looking guys stand in the doorway of an apothecary, and hand over a cane with an ornate handle to a man in a car. This man we see next sitting down in a public area, placing the cane carefully beside him—from where it is swiftly and surreptitiously switched for a replica by another, who rushes off with it.
We see the suave and handsome Gennady Kozodoev (Andrey Mironov), who had picked up the cane, and his crony Lyolik (Anatoliy Papanov) reporting to their boss, who opens a door (which looks like the door of a safe). All we see of the boss is a hand with a large and showy ring.
We see a little scene of exultation at what seems to be an archaeological dig: someone brushes the dirt off a buried box—and unearths a treasure. So many gold coins!
All that over, we move on from the prologue to the main story. A ship, the Mikhail Svetlov, is off on a cruise to places far and wide. Among the people lucky enough to have been chosen to go as tourists on this cruise is Semyon ‘Senya’ Semyonich Gorbunkov (Yuriy Nikolin), whose little family—wife Nadia (Nina Grebeshkova) and two children—have come to see him off.
We get a glimpse of how charmed (not to mention eventful, and crazy) a life Senya leads, in the very first minute or so. Nadia has to take their son off (to the loo? It’s never actually stated, but it seems like it), so the daughter is left in Senya’s charge. He seats her on some luggage that’s piled up beside them, and turns his back for a couple of moments, not realizing that the luggage is on a little vehicle, and that the men driving it to the ship have just climbed on. By the time Senya turns around, his daughter is far enough for him to have to sprint to catch up and take her off.
Also at the harbour, waiting to board the ship, is Gennady Kozodoev. Lyolik has come to see him off, and the two of them have a quick discussion before departure. What was the password, again? Damned lemon? No, damned melon. Damned melon.
Things move quickly now. The Mikhail Svetlov sets off, to much waving from friends and family ashore. Senya discovers that he is to be sharing a cabin with Gennady Kozodoev, and soon the two have become good friends, even on pet name terms: Senya and Guesha. They spend lots of time together on board, and whenever the ship docks at a port and they go ashore, Senya and Guesha are to be seen together.
The last port of call is Istanbul. Here, the lady heading the tour group lets the local guide show them the sights, before telling the Russians that now they have the rest of the day—till 5 PM—to themselves. The ship will set sail at 5, so they need to be on board by then. The group splits up, and Senya and Guesha set off together, only to be separated shortly after, thanks to a prostitute who tries to lure Senya into her room. Senya, who hasn’t realized who she is, manages to make his escape, but by then Guesha—who has other fish to fry—has run on ahead.
Senya goes off looking for Guesha. Guesha, in the meantime, has become hopelessly lost in the narrow lanes and alleys of this part of Istanbul. 5 PM is drawing closer, too, and he’s beginning to get a bit desperate.
Senya, now looking frantically for his pal Guesha, goes hurrying down a lane, not really seeing where he’s going. Someone’s discarded a couple of slices of half-eaten watermelon on the road, and Senya slips on these and falls heavily on his butt. “Damned melon!” he yells, and immediately, out of the nearby apothecary’s rush two men who help him up, ask “Russo?” and when Senya dazedly nods, ask, “Mikhail Svetlov?” When Senya nods to this too, they briskly haul him into the apothecary’s, and before Senya quite knows what’s happening, he’s been plonked down on a table and one of his shirtsleeves has been rolled up.
Senya pretends he’s passed out because of the shock, but he keeps an eye on what’s happening. And it’s bloody puzzling. These two men quickly set up a bowl of water, lots of plaster bandages, and—this is the biggest surprise of them all—jewellery. Plenty of very glittering stuff, all the way from pendants and brooches to diamond necklaces and gold coins. Even as Senya peeks out of the corner of his eye, they wrap his arm in a plaster cast, sandwiching each piece of jewellery between two layers of plaster-soaked bandage.
Senya keeps mum, though, and lets the men finish whatever they’re doing. When he ‘comes to’, they help him out, point him in the direction of the ship, and see him off.
A few minutes later, Guesha comes along (all that frantic racing about the maze of lanes has frazzled his nerves). He falls deliberately, yells out “Damned melon!”, finds that it has no effect, and yells it out again, more loudly.
It doesn’t take long for the truth to emerge. Guesha and his Turkish accomplices realize what has happened, and Guesha scrambles back to the ship. He will now have to figure out a way to get all that contraband off Senya.
Senya, meanwhile, has shown a great deal of good old common sense by going straight to the captain of the Mikhail Svetlov and confiding in him. The captain assures him that he’ll pass on the message to the concerned authorities back in the Soviet Union, and they will attend to this. Senya, of course, has no idea who the intended smuggler could be: obviously a passenger on the Mikhail Svetlov, since that was one of the things the Turks had confirmed before plastering their booty on to him. But who?
When the ship docks in Russia, Senya is relieved. Now, finally, the authorities will take over and he will be free of this horribly scary plaster. But the customs officer happily lets Senya and his luggage through (even though Senya tries, after rubbing off the chalk mark indicating customs clearance, to draw attention to the fact that he needs to be examined carefully).
Senya then catches a taxi—and realizes, very soon, that there’s something fishy about the taxi driver. The man starts off driving in the direction of Senya’s home, without Senya even having told him where it is. Then he refuses to take on any extra passengers. He has valid excuses for each of his actions, but Senya smells a rat. When the man turns around, Senya lashes out with his plastered arm. The cast, rock-hard, knocks the cabbie out…
… and when he comes to, it emerges that this man is a cop. The captain of the Mikhail Svetlov has, after all, been true to his word, and the police have made their plans to nab the smuggler(s). The policeman outlines the plan for Senya, and one of the most crucial components is that Senya must not tell anyone. Not even his wife, Nadia. To everybody, Senya’s plaster-covered arm must be what it appears to be: a broken arm (with a closed fracture) in a cast. And Senya must say that he was knocked unconscious because of his fall in Istanbul, and when he came to, the cast was already in place.
In the days that follow, Senya is given other things to help him along. Five hundred roubles, something like an expense account to enable him to visit places smugglers are likely to frequent (after all, they have to lure the smuggler to Senya, so that they can nab him). And a gun, which Senya is most reluctant to take over, until he’s assured that it’s been loaded with blanks.
So begins the adventure. Nadia gets suspicious pretty early on; something is definitely wrong. Senya is hiding something, she’s sure of it. What’s the secret, what’s the secret? Does he have a compound fracture instead of a closed one? Yes, that’s it.
And Guesha and Lyolik are trying their hardest to somehow lure Senya away somewhere so that they can knock him unconscious, cut off the cast, and make away with what is theirs.
All of this results in mayhem—what with Senya (who has no idea that Guesha, his old shipboard buddy, is the criminal), the cops (who don’t know, either, but at least seem to have more of their wits about them than does Senya), and Guesha/Lyolik (probably as unlucky a pair of crooks as the bunch in I Soliti Ignoti). Add to that Nadia, growing increasingly suspicious; and the local superintendent of the area, a lady who soon starts a campaign against Senya, the ‘debauch and drunkard’.
What I liked about this film:
The funniness of it. The plot is funny—Guesha and Lyolik’s attempts to corner Senya and get off the plaster are not so very far-fetched, on the surface of it, but they’re just plain unlucky, which is why each of their attempts goes for a toss (and how). Plus, Senya’s interactions with the cops, with Nadia, and with the very suspicious (and derisive) lady superintendent are hilarious. There is a bit of slapstick here and there, but nothing that I couldn’t take in my stride.
And the characterization, plus acting, are uniformly good. Guesha, for instance, has this air of handsome suavity, which occasionally suffers badly, as in the case of a wardrobe malfunction during a fashion show, or in his many failed attempts at getting the cast off Senya. Senya, while he may look bumbling and naïve (and often is), ends up—perhaps thanks to a Providence that looks out for him—escaping, again and again and again.
Another thing I enjoyed was that the villains aren’t utterly depraved. Guesha and Lyolik may be smugglers, but they aren’t bloodthirsty. They don’t want to kill Senya (which, I would have thought, would have been the most convenient way of getting the cast off him); all they want is to knock him unconscious long enough to cut it off. There’s something rather endearing about that.
Lastly: the music, composed by Aleksandr Zatsepin and conducted by Emin Khachaturyan. Peppy, infectious, delightful and utterly appropriate for the film.
What I didn’t like:
Nothing, really. The Diamond Arm is an absolutely delightful little film. It gave me some interesting insights into the USSR of the 60s (a glimpse of what it was like, perhaps, to be an ordinary human being living an ordinary life—if wandering around with an arm clad in bejeweled plaster casts can be said to be ordinary). And it was entertaining, immensely so.