Friday, November 14, 2014

The Films of Stanley Kubrick: Dr. Strangelove (1964)

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) 
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick.
Written by:  Stanley Kubrick & Terry Southern & Peter George based on the novel by George.
Starring: Peter Sellers (Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake / President Merkin Muffley / Dr. Strangelove), George C. Scott (Gen. 'Buck' Turgidson), Sterling Hayden (Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper), Keenan Wynn (Col. 'Bat' Guano), Slim Pickens (Maj. 'King' Kong), Peter Bull (Russian Ambassador Alexi de Sadesky), James Earl Jones (Lt. Lothar Zogg), Tracy Reed (Miss Scott), Jack Creley (Mr. Staines).

Normally, I do not like to engage in hyperbole – so when I say that I consider Dr. Strangelove to be the greatest comedy of the sound era – and arguably the greatest film comedy of all time, I mean that. What makes that all the more astonishing is that it is the only overt comedy in Kubrick’s career – although there are comedic elements to many of Kubrick’s films, notably Lolita and Eyes Wide Shut. Dr. Strangelove is an over-the-top political satire that takes a very real situation – and a very real fear in the world in 1964 – and turns it into a farce. The result is hilarious, but also disturbing and somewhat accurate. This is a movie that follows its premise right down to its inevitable conclusion.

The film opens with General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) ordering the squadron of planes under his command to attack their targets inside the Soviet Union with their nuclear payload. He wasn’t supposed to have this authority – but he took it upon himself anyway. President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) assembles his top advisers to figure out what the hell happened, and how they can possibly stop it. General Turgidson (George C. Scott) has a different approach – he says that since the planes are already in the air, and since they probably won’t be able to call them back anyway, they should just go ahead and launch a full-scale attack. Sure, they might get their “hair mussed” a little bit, but he estimates no more than 20 million civilian casualties – tops. Muffley doesn’t want to go that way – and calls in the Russian ambassador to the war room (despite the fact that doing so will allow him to see the big board), and calls the Russian Premier on the phone. And that’s when he gets a nasty surprise – the Russians have just finished a Doomsday machine, which cannot be stopped, and if the planes attack, the world will be destroyed. The Nazi scientist, Dr. Strangelove (Sellers again) is full of knowledge, but cannot control his past beliefs. Meanwhile Ripper is being attacked by the US Army, and poor Captain Mandrake (Sellers, for a third time), from the British Army as part of the officer exchange program, has to deal with his insane ranting about his Precious bodily fluids – a theory Ripper came up with as he got fatigued during the physical act of love. The movie moves back and forth between the war room, Rippers office, and one of the planes headed for the Soviet Union – piloted by Major Kong (Slim Pickens, in a role that was supposed to be Sellers fourth in the film) – who seems like an idiot – but is in fact very good at his job, which is the worst thing he could be for the fate of the world.

Like all of Kubrick’s major films, Dr. Strangelove is based on a novel – but one that he shapes to his own purposes. Red Alert – written by Peter George (who collaborated on the screenplay) is not a comedy at all – but a rather serious novel that was taken very seriously by those in power who believed its nightmare scenario was at least somewhat plausible. When Kubrick started working on the screenplay, he believed he would be making a drama – but the further he got into it, the more he started to see the humor in the situation – and eventually along with Terry Southern, he turned it into the comedy that it became. Like all great satires, Kubrick takes a realistic premise, and stretches it to ridiculous extremes. The film came out the same year as Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe – which tells a very similar story, but with a straight face, and presents a plausible nightmare scenario Fail Safe is a fine film – Strangelove is a masterpiece­­ – the difference being that Kubrick sees this all as ridiculous.

The key to the movie is the performances. Kubrick lucked out when he met Peter Sellers when working on Lolita – seeing Sellers in that movie play one character, who took on different personas, gave him the idea that Sellers could play different characters in the same movie. In the film, Sellers creates three completely different characters – his Captain Mandrake is a model of British politeness and restraint – he knows he’s dealing with a crazy American, but he never really loses his cool. Even near the end, when the fate of the world rests on his ability to make a phone call, and he doesn’t have the proper change – he doesn’t really get angry. His Merkin Muffley is an ineffectual politician – trying to please everyone, and ending up just angering everyone. His phone conversation with the Russian Premier, where we only hear his side of the conversation, is quite possibly the funniest thing I have ever seen in a movie. And his Dr. Strangelove is a play the clichéd Nazi – much like in Lolita when his Clare Quilty pretends to be the German shrink. Strangelove wants to be seen as a reformed Nazi – but we cannot control himself, saying Mein Fuhrer repeatedly, not being able to control his arm from going into a Nazi salute – and of course his pitched plan to save humanity, which is basically a plan to build a “Master Race”. This is the best work Sellers ever did – and one of the greatest performances in screen history. Yet, I almost think that George C. Scott is even better as Turgidson – a prototypical Army Hawk, who takes things to a ridiculous extreme – whether he’s falling over himself, or yelling about the Big Board, or fumbling with his binders – he represents the idiotic thinking that led the world to the brink of destruction in the first place – even at the end of the movie, he’s still arguing that they cannot allow their to be a “Mine Shaft Gap” between them and Commies. Sterling Hayden is also great as Ripper – unlike Scott, he mainly plays his scenes straight – and allows the ridiculousness of what he is saying generate the comedy.

Kubrick may have never made a comedy before or after Dr. Strangelove – but that doesn’t mean the movie is not connected to his other work. Having seen the two films within a week from each other, I couldn’t help but think of Paths of Glory when watching Dr. Strangelove. Both take a jaundiced view of war, patriotism and leadership. Both paint portraits of the men who make the decisions not caring about those they are supposed to protect. Paths of Glory plays out like a tragedy – Dr. Strangelove as a farce, but they get at some of the same issues. If you want to know Kubrick’s view of war, all you have to consider is that in Dr. Strangelove the world comes to an end because an old man can no longer perform sexually like he used to. That’s the film is a microcosm.

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