"Gentlemen, you can't fight in here--this is the war room!"
It is rare to find a director with as awe-inspiring a body of work as Stanley Kubrick. Certainly, part of his highly successful "batting average" is due to the relatively small number of films he made--but much more so, it's due to his sheer genius, and the rare manner in which he voraciously and uncompromisingly brought his visions to life on the screen. There are a few Kubrick pictures which will be popping up during this series of 52 Perfect Movies--the first of them is his sublime political and social satire, Dr. Strangelove.
Kubrick would become known as a film-maker of gravity and intense seriousness, and yet here we have him delving into comedy, albeit comedy as black as coal, much like his previous effort of two years earlier, an adaptation of Nabakov's Lolita. And so we are left with a comedy as only the mind of Kubrick could've given us, wickedly funny, yet unrelentingly bleak; a "message film" concerned deeply with the fate of the world itself, yet also with the foibles of human nature, that manages to remain the complete opposite of preachy or self-righteous.
There really is no other film like Dr. Strangelove. Impossible to completely categorize, it is at times an all-out comedy--or more appropriately, a satire--which for much of the picture, doesn't "feel" like a comedy. With the exception of the appearance of the good doctor himself at the end--an example of Peter Sellers' brilliant physical comedy--much of the humor is slyly cloaked, and can even partly go over the head of some, shall we say, less astute filmgoers.
There's also the fact that it doesn't look like a comedy. Like most of Kubrick's work, it's heavy and ponderous looking, shot with stark shadows and sterile, almost dehumanizing production design. No one since Orson Welles knew how to use a camera as brilliantly to his advantage as Kubrick did, although in this particular case much of the credit goes to cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, the Englishman who would later work on such masterfully shot films as A Hard Day's Night, Repulsion, The Omen, and a little 1977 popcorn flick known as Star Wars.
In a lot of ways, Dr. Strangelove shows Kubrick really coming into what would be perceived as his "later" phase, in which his films are concerned with nothing so much as the alienation of the human soul, and the slow-burning anxiety of a seemingly perfectly balanced situation sent hopelessly and inevitably off-kilter. This was during the heart of the Cold War, when, despite how things turned out, many did earnestly believe that the world lay constantly on the brink of annihilation, and perhaps this was so. There's a real concern with this matter in Dr. Strangelove, underneath all that ludicrousness. As wry as the presentation is, and as bone dry the comedy is, the heart of this picture is quite serious.
Kubrick's flair for unforgettable imagery and jarring juxtaposition is here in full force. The sexualized mid-air refueling scene that opens the film, accompanied by romantic strings. The maniacal visage of Sterling Haydn's Gen. Jack Ripper, phallic cigar clenched in his teeth. Slim Pickens' iconic ride on the nuclear warhead. The closing moments of atomic Armageddon, set sardonically to the strains of the traditional wartime anthem "We'll Meet Again" by Vera Lynn. No one will ever meet again, because the world is coming to an end--that closing tune mocks the manner in which the Western world clung to outdated concepts of warfare in a time when those rules no longer applied.
And yet just as much as Dr. Strangelove is a triumph from a technical point of view, it is one of those films that is also just as much of a triumph thanks to the stellar performances of its lead actors. George C. Scott is a revelation as the war-mongering Gen. Buck Turgidson (one of the greatest character names in movie history), a role that put the gruff actor's abilities to exquisite use. Haydn takes us to the depths of madness while at the same time never undermining the ridiculousness of the proceedings, painting the portrait of a deranged, potentially genocidal lunatic who would wipe out civilization to quell the paranoia and doubt raised by his impotence as a man and as a leader.
Then of course, we have Peter Sellers. One of the greatest comic geniuses of the 20th century in what may be, when all is said and done, the most impressive cinematic turn of his career. He was rightfully nominated for an Oscar for playing three different roles, giving him the interesting distinction of being the only actor so nominated for a movie in which he played more than one character.
As Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake, Sellers sends up British propriety and comments on the strained behind-the-scenes alliance of the U.S. and the U.K. in the face of a common enemy. As President Merkin Muffley, he is the epitome of the stifled, emotionally deadened American, a man whose ineptitude becomes both situation comedy and horrifying cultural commentary. And finally, as Strangelove himself, Sellers unabashedly displays his comedy chops as a crippled ex-Nazi desperately fighting to suppress his sheer ecstasy as the world collapses into chaos.
Any one of these parts would have made him the highlight of the picture. With all three, the movie is utterly and wholly his, and it's easy to see why he was a Kubrick favorite. It doesn't make sense somehow that Kubrick and Sellers would be such a perfect match, but it's undeniable that they were.
The razor sharp wit of Dr. Strangelove is rooted in a specific time and place in American history, and yet it's still paradoxically timeless as well. There are moments that resonate just as profoundly as they did 45 years ago, such as Turgidson's outrageous and often-mimicked tirade in the war room, Ripper's deluded rant to a terrified and helpless Mandrake about "precious bodily fluids", or Merkin's panicked, creepily childish yet at the same hilarious phone call to the Soviet premier.
Dr. Strangelove is a bold statement that cinema was changing and that the things film-makers could say--and the ways in which they could say them--was changing as well. To watch it is to watch a true visionary coming into his own, and proving that sometimes there actually can be something new under the sun. There are few experiences for a moviegoer as unique as this film, a complex, dark and endlessly amusing statement on the insanity of the world and its inhabitants that seems to tell us, "If you can't laugh at all of it, what else can you do?"
NEXT UP: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1967)