25 February 2006

100 films: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

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starring: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, and Slim Pickens
written by: Terry Southern & Stanley Kubrick & Peter George, from the novel by George
directed by: Stanley Kubrick
NR, 93 min, 1964, UK

Widely hailed as the greatest black comedy ever filmed, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb[1] is Stanley Kubrick's subversive take on a common Cold War theme[2]. Deranged Brig. General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) has sent his squadron of planes an order to attack the Soviet Union as they held at the fail safe point, and subsequently made it impossible for anyone other than him to call the planes back. When news of this reaches Washington, President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) calls his advisors to the war room, where General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) suggests the best plan of action may be to back the planes up with a coordinated all-out offensive that's sure to cripple the Soviet forces and limit American casualties to twenty million, tops. But the Russians, to everyone's surprise, have just completed a "Doomsday Machine" designed to destroy all plant an animal life on the planet, and even they cannot prevent it from retaliating.

Combine the plot details with the direction of Stanley Kubrick, and it's probably safe to assume that few people in 1964 automatically assumed Dr. Strangelove would be a biting political satire. But on second thought, maybe they did. In retrospect, Dr. Strangelove feels like a departure from Kubrick's normal fare like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971), The Shining (1980), and Full Metal Jacket (1987)[3], but Dr. Strangelove pre-dates them all. So a comedy doesn't seem like a Kubrick project to us, but it makes sense when you view it in context. This is a man who had done several self-produced projects, which he had parlayed into the Kirk Douglas war film Paths of Glory (1957). When Douglas couldn't get along with Anthony Mann, he replaced Mann with Kubrick for Spartacus (1960), primarily to serve as a figurehead through whom Douglas could operate. Naturally, this didn't work. Kubrick took over, then made Lolita (1962), a lighthearted[4] version of the Vladimir Nabokov novel that featured a supporting turn by Peter Sellers. All this is to say that when you view Kubrick's career in that sequence, a Peter Sellers dark comedy isn't all that unexpected. In fact, it's a rather natural progression.

But enough history, let's look at the film itself. The primary settings for Dr. Strangelove are deceptively simple: the interior of a plane, the War Room, and Brig. General Ripper's office. Apart from a few others, that's pretty much it. A knowledgeable audience member realizes that much of the film is shot on sound stages[5], but a couple of choices in staging and camera work gives the impression of so much more. The plane interiors are filmed as if the camera is being operated by one of the crew. There are no long tracking shots or wide establishing shots. The shots are instead framed in a way that at no time are we given the feeling that the production has taken out a chunk of the plane so that the camera can get the perfect angle. This gives the scenes a cramped, uneasy feeling further heightened by the borderline mental instability of the pilot, Maj. T.J. "King" Kong (Slim Pickens). Our level of closeness to him and the rest of the crew is uncomfortable, especially when you consider the nuclear bombs stored below. Contrast that with the scenes in the War Room, where Kubrick goes to great lengths to show us just how big it is. He seats all the advisors around the type of enormous round table you only see in a movie, with a circular florescent light hovering overhead. Behind them is the "big board", a large map of the Soviet Union with lights indicating the position of the planes. The room itself is so big that even the widest wide-angle shot cannot show it all. Clearly rooms of this size do not exist, but Kubrick uses it to remind us of the great power the men in this room hold, but at the same time, he often puts them in the lower part of the frame, an indication that despite all their power, there is little they can do in this situation.

And the one man in the room who should be able to prevent a nuclear holocaust, comes across as the most ineffectual of them all--President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers). Originally conceived by Terry Southern as a character with a bad head cold[6], the President is shocked to learn that not only has someone authorized an attack, but that there's no way to bring them back. And to top it off, the bill that enabled such a bizarre scenario is one that he approved. It is a politician's worst nightmare. Of the three characters Sellers plays in the film (Muffley, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, and Dr. Strangelove), this is the most memorable, or at the very least my favorite. His telephone conversation with the Soviet Premier ranks as one of the best comedic exchanges in all of cinema, and it's all that more impressive that we can only hear one half of the call. The Premier is drunk, so Muffley must explain things to him multiple times and deviate from a very important issue to reassure this man that "Of course I like to speak to you! Of course I like to say hello!" The three-pronged performance by Sellers is clearly one the best from this comedic genius[7]. Much of Muffley's scenes are played against Gen. 'Buck' Turgidson (George C. Scott), a military advisor a little too enamored with the business of war and highly distrustful of the Russians. Scott, a criminally underrated actor, is perhaps the best thing in the film. Chomping violently on multiple sticks of gum, he's all big movements and facial contortions, ready to fly off into a rage at a moment's notice. Secretly he's thrilled with the turn of events and a little perturbed that he must waste valuable time convincing this damned politician to launch a coordinated attack. Acting-wise, Scott is off in his own little world, but it's important to note that even as he launches nearer and nearer to madness, he stays firmly grounded in the reality of the film. Few actors can chew the scenery with such vigor without detracting from the film. It's a fine line, and Scott walks it perfectly.

There's little doubt that Dr. Strangelove serves as the high-water mark for anti-war films, but it also ranks alongside not only the best comedies ever made, but also the best films. For such a timely film, it feels as fresh today as it did in the Cold War. But what's most remarkable is that it was even made at all. Imagine the modern equivalent: a dark satire about terrorism featuring the melody "We'll meet again" playing over footage of the explosion. It's the sort of bad taste no one would permit, but when you have people as bold and talented as Stanley Kubrick and Peter Sellers, they find a way to make it work. In their able hands, the gruesome becomes absurd and the horrific becomes somewhat campy and sweet. It is, hands down, one of the greatest things ever put on film.

[1] As I am extremely lazy, from here on out I will refer to it by the film's abbreviated title: Dr. Strangelove.

[2] See also Sidney Lumet's Fail Safe (1964) as one of the better examples.

[3] If you get a chance, check out his filmography on IMDB.com, particularly the stretch from Spartacus (1960) to Eyes Wide Shut (1999).

[4] At least, that's what I'm told. I haven't seen it.

[5] Shepperton Studio in England, to be precise.

[6] Scrapped because Peter Sellers was so funny the rest of the cast couldn't keep a straight face.

[7] It earned Sellers his first Academy Award nomination for acting, following a nomination for the Live Action Short The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1960). He would later be nominated for his quietly brilliant turn in Hal Ashby's Being There (1979). Of course, he is best known as Insp. Jacques Clouseau in the original Pink Panther films.