‘The Diamond Arm’ or — Possibly Contains The Greatest Joke in The World?
Leonid Gaidai’s ‘The Diamond Arm’ (1969) takes a good half an hour to get going, being a sort of borderline insufferable slog until then, but once it kicks into gear it blossoms into one of the funniest comedies you’ll have had the pleasure to clap your eyes on. This is a very funny movie.
“Ordinary Soviet citizen” Semyon Gorbunkov has gone on holiday. A cruise to be precise. On board he meets fellow tourist Kozodoyev and they become friends. However, Kozodoyev works for a mysterious figure known only as The Chief and has been assigned the job of smuggling some diamonds from Turkey back to the U.S.S.R.. The plan is to hide the jewels in an orthopedic cast which will attached to Kozodoyev’s left arm enabling him to smuggle the merch back into Russia under the pretense of suffering a compound fracture.
But when a mix up results in the innocent Semyon having the jewel-filled cast put on his arm instead this throws a spanner in Kozodoyev’s works. Semyon immediately alerts the police on his return to his predicament. The police instruct Semyon to keep the cast on in and act as bait in order to flush out the real criminals who will want that merchandise back. The Chief will have their heads after all if they don’t.
So what follows is a game of cat and mouse and Semyon pretends to go about his ordinary Soviet life whilst the criminals attempt to retrieve the stolen gems and the police attempt to snare the crooks.
Pretty straight forward and pretty unremarkable so far and ‘The Diamond Arm’ is deflatingly unremarkable for its opening 30 minutes or so. It plays out as an almost silent, slapstick comedy that’s trying a little too hard, going for gags whenever it can with a few of them (often accompanied by cheesy sound effects) falling a little flat. Sure, the movie is incredibly well made and beautifully shot (the cinematography, set and costume design are gorgeous) but the comedy writing feels like it’s lagging behind in terms of quality. And a few eye-rolling groaners don’t help.
But then everything drastically changes with ‘The Diamond Arm’ delivering some of the most inspired, brilliantly written, genuinely hysterical, cine-literate gags I’ve ever witnessed in a movie. Without giving too much away, or ruining punch lines, here are a few examples -
1/ Kozodoyev’s initial attempt to steal back the diamonds pushes the entire film into the realms of the surreal before culminating in one of the characters fighting his cat in his sleep… and losing. I laughed so hard I was choking.
2/ The modeling show! Kozodoyev is posing as a model (his features are so slick he looks like Jude Law’s robot in ‘A.I.’) as the entire film explodes into a riot of Soviet pop art colours and design. It ends with a seriously nice shot involving infinity mirrors.
3/ Kozodoyev decides to take Semyon on a fishing trip. The plan is to knock Semyon unconscious while he is fishing and steal the cast. The scene starts off quite annoying with some mediocre sight gags only to escalate to the point of the ridiculous before leaping into the realm of pure insanity and then capping it all off with a joke at the expensive of Tarkovsky’s ‘Ivan’s Childhood’ (1962) which might be the greatest sight gag I’ve ever seen in my life. I’m still laughing about it today and is, without a doubt, the funniest Tarkovsky gag you’ll ever see.
4/ The hare song. Semyon and Kozodoyev get drunk, Semyon sings a song about hares. Chaos ensues, swans go berserk, a cooked duck levitates, people scream and its end with a chair flying through a plate glass window as the perfect punctuation point.
5/ Semyon is getting seduced by a naughty seductress. The colour palette is striking and eye-popping. It culminates in a joke about involving a bra, a lampshade and the social dynamics of Soviet living conditions.
6/ Possibly the greatest gag ever written? One of my favourite jokes of all time is in ‘Monty Python and The Holy Grail’ when, just at the moment of maximum tension, it cuts to an intermission. Well ‘The Diamond Arm’ might very well have inspired that gag because it has one almost exactly the same but, possibly, even funnier and certainly better constructed because it has been set up since the very beginning of the movie. It has been seeded early, ready to flower at precisely the right moment and when it did I lost it. I wasn’t sure if I had just watched a gag or had an epiphany. It is an incredible piece of comedy writing and execution. It’s a stroke of genius that demonstrates this movie is going for maximum irreverence and I would have LOVED to have heard the audience’s response to that moment on opening night. The place must’ve exploded!
‘The Diamond Arm’ is an incredible movie. It looks a million rubles, has a beautiful aesthetic, a sophisticated use of sound, some nice satirical digs at Soviet life (there’s a busy body woman who thinks she runs the residential building complex and believes liking dogs is a sign of ‘La Dolce Vita’) and contains an enjoyable story. It also has a strong undercurrent of homosexuality although I’m still figuring out in what way. Yes, the film does try a little too hard at times and it can take a while to realise that some seemingly directionless scenes are actually leading up to an expertly crafted pay-off but when those pay-offs come the laughs they manifest are hard and loud.
‘The Diamond Arm’ might not be the most consistently funny film ever made (it’s a little too scattershot at times) but it definitely contains some of the funniest moments I’ve ever seen in a long time. I honestly can’t remember the last time I laughed THIS hard. And if Monty Python weren’t influenced by this movie, let alone had lifted from it wholesale, I wouldn’t believe them for a second.
So yeah, if a Soviet crime comedy about diamond smuggling replete with pop-art design, social satire and Tarkovsky gags is up your street you’ll discover ‘The Diamond Arm’ is a real gem.