#346) Dr. Strangelove (1964)
OR “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (Alright, a freebie!)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Written by Kubrick & Terry Southern & Peter George. Base on the book “Red Alert” by Peter George.
Class of 1989
The Plot: At the height of the Cold War, the United States Air Force has B-52 bombers in the air at all times, always within two hours of their Russian targets. Overcome with Communist paranoia, General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) issues an air strike without permission, and locks himself and RAF Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers) in his office. President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) is briefed on the situation by both the war-hungry General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) and nuclear scientist/former Nazi Dr. Strangelove (Peter Sellers). Eventually all bombers are notified to abort the mission, except for one piloted by Major Kong (Slim Pickens) who is hell-bent on going “toe-to-toe with the Rooskies”. World War III hangs in the balance in the darkest comedy ever made.
Why It Matters: The NFR praises the film’s “edgy satire” and “outrageously funny performances”. There’s also an essay by film studies Professor Wheeler Winson Dixon, author of “Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s”.
But Does It Really?: No question about it: “Dr. Strangelove” is filmdom’s definitive black comedy. Only a skilled filmmaker like Stanley Kubrick can simultaneously illuminate the very real danger of nuclear war and the inherent ridiculousness of political and military power. “Strangelove” is one of the rare movies where every department is firing on all cylinders, and more importantly, the rare comedy where everyone’s in on the joke. “Dr. Strangelove” seems to only get better with age, continuing to be laugh-out-loud funny while still maintaining its dire warning about human unpredictability. An undisputed classic, and a natural for the NFR.
Everybody Gets One: Original “Red Alert” author Peter George, and editor Anthony Harvey, who went on to direct “The Lion in Winter”.
Wow, That’s Dated: While still easy to follow today, the plot of “Strangelove” contains numerous references to Cold War paranoia that is lost on modern viewers. One example: Ripper’s conspiracy theory about Communist water fluoridation was a real conspiracy theory at the time!
Seriously, Oscars?: “Dr. Strangelove” was set to premiere in December 1963, but was delayed until January 1964 in response to America’s somber mood following the Kennedy assassination. “Strangelove” went on to be a hit, and received four Academy Award nominations: Picture, Director, Actor (for Sellers), and Adapted Screenplay. The film lost in the first three categories to that year’s big winner “My Fair Lady”, while Adapted Screenplay went to “Becket”. Not surprising for a British co-production, “Strangelove” did far better at the BAFTAs.
- Kubrick and Peter George had intended to adapt “Red Alert” into a straightforward drama, but found some aspects of the nuclear arms race utterly ridiculous. Writer/satirist Terry Southern was then brought on board to help shape the film into a black comedy.
- Just from the opening credits you know something is going to be different about this movie. Not every Cold War drama begins with suggestive footage of refueling jets.
- Thanks to this blog, I now get why it’s funny having Sterling Hayden play Jack D. Ripper. Hayden is essentially doing what would be perfected in “Airplane!”: playing to his previous dramatic typecasting in a ridiculous comedy.
- That’s James Earl Jones (in his film debut!) as one of the bomber pilots. Jones is one of a handful of artists with two films in the NFR inaugural class.
- This whole post can be me gushing about Peter Sellers, right? None of his three characters are individually incredible, but the fact that Sellers pulls off all three is a testament to his talent. Strangelove is Sellers’ chance to show off broad yet disciplined physical comedy, while both Muffley and Mandrake let him play more low-key, reactionary humor. Plus that’s a solid American accent he’s got there: flat, yet colorful.
- Sellers was originally cast in a fourth role as Major Kong, but sprained his ankle (some suggest intentionally to get out of the part), with Slim Pickens becoming his 11th hour replacement. No one told Pickens the film was a comedy, so he played it “straight”, and the rest is film history.
- Shout out to Tracy Reed as Miss Scott. She’s the only woman in the movie and she’s treated like a sex object the whole time. Look how far we’ve come!
- George C. Scott has better performances on his resume, but he’s never been funnier. It helps that Kubrick essentially tricked Scott into playing the role over-the-top during “rehearsal” takes, which infuriated Scott upon seeing the final film.
- Shout out to Ken Adam for that War Room set. An iconic set piece from the man who gave you the iconic set pieces of the Connery-era Bond films.
- This film is definitive proof that comedy is drama plus details. There’s nothing funny about nuclear annihilation, but once you add details like “precious bodily fluids” and a Coca-Cola machine, you find the film’s humorous dark streak.
- You may have noticed a lot of quick cuts during Muffley’s phone call with the Soviet Premier (and later during Strangelove’s monologues). My assumption is that the film cuts away right before the cast and crew break-up from one of Peter Sellers’ ad-libs. You can even see Peter Bull as the Soviet ambassador starting to crack a smile in some takes.
- Turgidson falling and getting back up mid-sentence is still one of my favorite moments in any film.
- Nice to see you Keenan Wynn, but why are you saying “prevert” instead of “pervert”? Was there a typo in the script?
- Another “Wow, That’s Dated”: Mandrake’s climactic moment hinges on him having enough change for a pay phone.
- Major Kong riding the bomb. It’s just one of those perfect film moments where everything clicks. I agree with Roger Ebert that the film should have ended there.
- That being said, a montage of bombs going off set to Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again” is an inspired choice. It is the perfect dark button to a perfectly dark film.
- Both Peter Sellers and Stanley Kubrick’s stock rose after “Strangelove”. Sellers went on to the “Pink Panther” film series, while Kubrick teamed up with Arthur C. Clarke to make “the proverbial good science-fiction movie”.
- This film is so good even its trailer has a legacy. Designed by Pablo Ferro (who also did the opening credits), the trailer’s quick jump cuts and avant-garde style was revolutionary in the early ‘60s, and changed the studio’s approach to promoting their coming attractions.
- The making of “Strangelove” is covered in “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers”, with Geoffrey Rush as Sellers and Stanley Tucci as Kubrick.
- “Dr. Strangelove” has had its share of parodies and references over the years, primarily allusions to the “bomb riding” shot. Here’s “The Simpsons” with more.
- Believe it or not, Kubrick briefly entertained the idea of a “Strangelove” sequel in the mid-90s. Terry Southern returned to write “Son of Strangelove” about the Doctor’s time in the bunker, but died shortly after beginning the script. Kubrick apparently had Terry Gilliam in mind to direct.
Further Viewing: Sidney Lumet’s “Fail Safe” explores many of the same topics as “Strangelove”, albeit in a far more dramatic tone. Once Kubrick learned that “Fail Safe” was also in production, he, Peter George, and Columbia sued the film, claiming it was too similar to “Red Alert”. There was a settlement, and “Fail Safe” was released eight months after “Strangelove”. It was successful, but it ain’t on the list.