Saturday, October 29, 2011

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 39
Year: 1964
Writer: Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern (adaptation), Peter George (novel)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Star: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Slim Pickins

The biggest joke in “Dr. Strangelove” is that is would have made one hell of a good thriller. In fact, it did. Ever see Sidney Lumet’s “Fail Safe”? Of course, until its third act, “Dr. Strangelove” plays its situation completely straight. No one winks at the audience. The actors twitch. A lot. But they never wink.

The plot involves a crazed General named Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) implementing Wing Attack Plan R (for Robert), in which all the American nuclear bombers go incommunicado and attack Russia. Ripper’s aide (Peter Sellers) desperately struggles to learn a code that will bring communication back to the bombers. Meanwhile, the President (Sellers again) convenes all his important Generals and severe-looking friends in the War Room to try and prevent the disaster. Most notable among the attendees is General Turgidson (George C. Scott), who chews a lot of gum and isn’t beating himself up over this little slip up, and Dr. Strangelove himself (Sellers a third time), a former Nazi with a hand that has a mind of its own. Oh, and we’re also following one of the bombers piloted by King Kong (Slim Pickins) as it approaches its Russian target. Personally, I wish the Kong role was a fourth for Sellers, but what can you do?

Writers Stanley Kubrick (also the director) and Terry Southern are brilliant in the way they slowly build their jokes by grounding them first in reality and then logically escalating them a step at a time until we are lost in the hilarity of it all. One of the best gags is when Ripper’s aide desperately needs to make a call to the President. The red phone in Ripper’s office has been destroyed. So has the regular phone. Good thing there’s a pay-phone in the hallway. But, crap, Sellers doesn’t have enough change. Can he call the President collect? Nope. Does a nearby soldier have change? Of course not, why would a soldier carry coins into battle? Sellers finally begs the soldier to fire into a Coke machine, and then they get into the ethics of destroying property of the Coke-a-Cola corporation. The solider finally concedes, but if Sellers doesn’t get in contact with the President there will be hell to pay. And then there’s the beautiful visual gag of Coke spurting from the machine all over the soldier’s face. The entire affair is underlined by the suspense that, if Sellers doesn’t make that call, the entire world will be plunged into a nuclear winter. It’s brilliant.

There are many genuinely funny scenes just like this peppered all around “Dr. Strangelove,” but I must admit that some of these jokes and payoffs just don’t land as they once did. It’s a shame because other filmmakers have ripped off many of the jokes so often and in such a literal fashion that they can’t help but lose some of their power. Look at the moment where Scott’s character takes a personal call with his secretary/whore in the war room. How many variations on this moment have we seen in film and on television? Or the scene where the secretary/whore carries on a conversation on the phone between two men by screaming at one in the bathroom?

Ah well, when the movie is at its best, it’s still maniacally funny. “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here, it’s the War Room!” is right up there with “Nobody’s perfect” or “Show me the money!” in the echelon of all-time-best comedic one-liners.

Sellers is great in his three roles. Dr. Strangelove is, of course, the showiest, and I’m guessing whenever they show a clip of Sellers in the movie, this is the first character they focus on. But, for my money, his “straight man” performances as the President and Ripper’s aide Mandrake are even better. Mandrake is probably my favorite, but that’s because the character gets my favorite extended gag (the aforementioned Coke machine sequence) in the movie. Scott’s performance is purposefully over the top, as if he’s playing to the third tier of a theatre without realizing Kubrick is filming in close-up. The result is splendid.

I must say that I think there is a major structural error in the movie’s third act. As Kong rides the bomb down to the ground, screaming in glee the entire time, the movie reaches its maniacal high point. But then, for some unknown reason, we move back to the War Room for more talk and plans of moving into mines for a hundred years or so. The scene is funny, but why is it here? Why couldn’t this scene have been moves to before the bombing moment, that way we are on a high when the film cuts to the “We’ll Meet Again” and the montage of bombs going off. The scene feels unnecessary as it is, and hurts the pacing of the final act.

Of course I make my complaints in the full knowledge that this movie getting made at all was miraculous, and that Kubrick and Southern actually pulling off making a nuclear disaster funny was nearly impossible. “Dr. Strangelove” is one of those once-in-a-generation features that breaks all the rules in such a way that they can never be broken in the same way again.

It turns out Kubrick was very good at this “breaking the rules” thing – in addition to this movie he similarly rewrote what we thought we knew about film with “2001: A Space Odyssey” (also in the AFI Top 100), “Barry Lyndon” and “The Shining.” This will be my final Kubrick article for this series (I’ve previously written on “Spartacus,” “A Clockwork Orange” and “2001: A Space Odyssey”), and I must say that even though his work has never emotionally engaged me on a level Chaplin, Hitchcock, Wilder, Spielberg or Huston do, I really admire what his movies aspire to be and love his technical expertise. They are all imperfect, sure, but Kubrick is unafraid to take us places and do things with his films other directors would never attempt to try.

My Score (out of 5): ****

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