Saturday, March 22, 2014

Dr. Strangelove (1964)

Director: Stanley Kubrick                                  Writers: Stanley Kubrick & Terry Southern
Film Score: Laurie Johnson                               Cinematography: Gilbert Taylor
Starring: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden and Slim Pickens

Stanley Kubrick’s satiric take on the Cold War has become, for many, one of the greatest comedies of all time. Anchored as it is by Peter Sellers’ bravura performance in three roles, Dr. Strangelove takes the idea of an accidental initiation of a nuclear attack on Russia to extreme proportions and plays the whole thing for serious laughs. In fact, the opening titles are brilliant in and of themselves. Long before the idea of “food porn” was born, Kubrick indulges in what could only be termed “military porn” as a plane during flight is refueled by another from a long hose extending from the rear of the fuselage, all accompanied to the sounds of romantic string music. And the longer the music and credits continue to roll, the more suggestive the images become. It’s a harbinger of the brilliance of the film as a whole and a vision of full-on satire that Kubrick, regrettably, never attempted again.

Sterling Hayden is the impetus for the attack. As the commander of an air force base he takes it upon himself to use a safety plan in the system and gives the orders himself for launching nuclear strikes against Russia. Sellers, as a British captain on the base, pleads for sanity, but Hayden locks him in his office, shuts off all communications to the base and orders his troops to fire on anyone who tries to enter. Meanwhile, back at the war room in the Pentagon the president, also Peter Sellers, is wonderfully outraged in a perfectly intellectually subdued manner. His argument is with George C. Scott as a general who, while paying lip service to this unfortunate mistake, is clearly itching to attack and suggests that they launch eighty percent of the U.S. capability to ensure a successful first strike against the Russians assuring that the U.S. will only suffer twenty million or so casualties. Scott is wonderful in his role of the crazed military leader, a quality he would bring later, though much more subtly, to his role in Patton.

The conversation that the president has with the Russian premier over the phone is as good as anything Bob Newhart ever wrote. And finally the president calls in his expert, Dr. Strangelove, also played by Sellers, to explain the Russian premier’s mention of a doomsday bomb that will wipe out all life on the earth. Sellers’ performance as Strangelove brings to mind that of Lionel Atwill in Son of Frankenstein as Inspector Krogh with his leather gloved artificial hand. The bomber crew in the air, captained by Slim Pickens, and including James Earl Jones, calmly goes through their final routine of reading the top secret orders and issuing survival kits in readiness to carry out their mission, all of which ends in the iconic scene with Pickens riding the bomb and waving his cowboy hat. Keenan Wynn also puts in a memorable appearance at the end of the picture as Colonel “Bat” Guano, whose men have been charged with getting to Hayden but don’t know why.

One of the most impressive things about the film is that it was made right in the middle of the Cold War itself, just two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis would have made it a documentary. In fact, Kubrick had originally intended to make a serious thriller, but found he had to leave so much out that was incongruous or ridiculous that gradually the idea of the black comedy seemed all the more appropriate, not to mention easier to accomplish. The combination of Kubrick’s brilliant touch behind the camera--the scenes of the army attacking the air force base actually do resemble documentary footage--and the considerable abilities of Peter Sellers have made this film a masterpiece of Cold War and military satire that is as effective today as it was the day it was released. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was nominated for four Oscars and, though it didn’t win, remains an all-time classic.

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