Friday, November 11, 2011

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

UK, 95 minutes
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writers: Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern, Peter George
Photography: Gilbert Taylor
Music: Laurie Johnson
Editor: Anthony Harvey
Cast: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Peter Bull, Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn, Slim Pickens, James Earl Jones, Tracy Reed

There are a number of facts about the historical context of Dr. Strangelove I hadn't understood well before looking into the picture a bit more deeply. The original premiere, for example, was scheduled for November 22, 1963, which obviously meant it had to be postponed for several weeks. On that same tip there was even a scene that contained the line, "Gentlemen! Our gallant young president has just been struck down in his prime!"—part of a pie-throwing scene that sounds altogether too silly and was cut for that reason. It was cut before the assassination of John Kennedy happened, but you see what I'm getting at here.

In many ways, Dr. Strangelove stepped in as an augur of public moods to come and it exists there still, a model to be aspired to. As black comedies go, it's fairly obvious: inept bureaucracies unable to identify and ward off their threats from within find themselves on the brink of planetary annihilation. In response, those who ostensibly have the power to take action act like schoolchildren. Sounds familiar, doesn't it? If Stanley Kubrick hadn't been the one to get to it first, someone else would have, and not long after. It's been a theme returned to again and again since. So it's good, I think, that it was Kubrick who got there first.

As someone better acquainted with the second half of his career than the first, I thought one of the most striking things about Dr. Strangelove is how compressed and generally nimble it is, clocking in just a bit longer than 90 minutes. At the same time, with its disparate points of focus—the federal government War Room, presumably in a bunker in Washington, D.C., the air force base somewhere out West from which the rogue attack is launched, and the interior of the B-52 bomber intent on delivering the final payload—it's also oddly episodic, even a bit disjointed, depending a good deal on individual performances to carry the momentum once the plot has been set in motion.

Fortunately, there are a bunch of fine performances here. Peter Sellers is often the most lionized among them, taking on three separate roles—in fact, he was originally cast for four, also as the pilot of the bomber, Major T.J. "King" Kong," the role eventually played by Slim Pickens, but Sellers reportedly couldn't master a Texas accent. Sellers is indeed particularly good as Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake, a British officer of eminent sense and reason who finds himself attempting futilely to deal with the madman Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (played by Sterling Hayden), who has launched the attack in an effort to preserve the American way of life against those who would intrude, famously, on our "precious bodily fluids." In particular, his concerns seem to be related to government programs systematically fluoridating water supplies.

Sellers underplays the British officer almost perfectly, getting out in front of the scenery-chewing Sterling Hayden and playing off him in understated ways that serve constantly to heighten the contrasts between them and the insanity of what General Ripper has wrought. Sellers is also pretty good as the American president Merkin Muffley, playing it mostly straight as a well-meaning egghead liberal who has lost control of the military. He's somewhat less successful as the over-the-top Dr. Strangelove (Herr Doktor Merkwürdigliebe, which you will note is German for "strange love"), a leftover scientist from Germany's Nazi regime now working at high levels on American military projects, who primarily occupies the final scenes. It's shrewd enough to get a Nazi in there, since there were so many of them in such positions in the postwar American government, but his basic function in the picture seemed too broadly obvious to me: "Humans, will they ever learn?" Nor was it as funny as so many in and around the production reportedly found it.

For my money, the best performances here come from George C. Scott and, to a lesser degree, Sterling Hayden. I would say they take a page out of the playbook of Leslie Nielsen, Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack, and the Zucker brothers, except Kubrick & cast obviously got to it first—even set the template, you might say. Players such as Hayden and Scott (and Nielsen and Bridges and Stack), because they were best known for the gravitas and grim realities of the roles they typically played, were well positioned to take advantage of a surprise element in these turns toward comedy, particularly with such flat-out absurdities as they are given to work with here.

My favorite scene in the whole picture is George C. Scott, as General "Buck" Turgidson, briefing the president on the situation, which is almost entirely hopeless by that time, an all but foregone conclusion of disaster. Scott is nevertheless trying to put the best face on it, all jaunty and upbeat about the whole thing even as he doles out the worst news imaginable one little piece at a time. He's chewing up sticks of gum like a maniac, and even in the midst of all this, still making a priority of defending his bureaucratic turf. When the president has finally grasped the situation and sharply rebukes him, Turgidson replies, with a little bit of a whine in his voice, "Well, I don't think it's quite fair to condemn a whole program because of a single slipup."

This is black satire and there's little that's subtle about it, from its opening disclaimer to its final images. Even the names of the characters give some idea of how dangerously close to ham-handedly broad and obvious this can verge—General Jack D. Ripper, Colonel "Bat" Guano, Major "King" Kong, President Merkin Muffley. But it's Kubrick, who was smart enough to take out a pie-throwing scene and generally keeps a tight rein, working the comedy as hard and as well as he does its bleak points about politics, bureaucracies, and human nature. If this didn't have its various laugh-out-loud moments, which tend to stand up to and even enrich themselves with multiple viewings, there's no way it would still be ranked so high as a matter of critical consensus.

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