#9 - Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
I also remember seeing my first copy of Leonard Maltin’s indispensible TV Movies book when I was eight or nine years old. It was an elephantine dictionary of films often shown on commercial television. In the bookstore, I searched its pages for the listing on Dr. Strangelove. I thought I was the only one who knew about this incredible film. There it was! I decided to buy the book (and every subsequent edition).
The Plot In Brief: General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) has a theory that the Russians are sapping Americans’ “precious bodily fluids” by fluoridating our water. He orders a bomber wing to fly into Russian airspace and drop their atomic payloads. Ripper’s second in command, Group-Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers), tries to convince Ripper to give him the code that will recall the bombers.
The President’s other advisor is Dr. Strangelove (Peter Sellers), a former Nazi rocket scientist who was brought to the United States after World War II to work in the defense department. Strangelove has a mechanical hand that refuses to follow orders. He suggests that Americans can stay alive after a nuclear holocaust in some of our deeper mineshafts.
Dr. Strangelove is the funniest black comedy ever made—at every turn humans are thwarted by the very technology designed to keep them safe. At one point American troops are sent in to fight… American troops. When Pickens’ bomber plane is hit, the auto-destruct mechanism on the radio scrambler is damaged… and blows itself up. Something is very wrong when the fate of the world rests on a Coca-Cola vending machine.
“[Scott’s] performance is the funniest thing in the movie […] I found myself paying special attention to the tics and twitches, the grimaces and eyebrow arching, the sardonic smiles and gum chewing, and I enjoyed the way Scott approached the role as a duet for voice and facial expression. That can be dangerous for an actor. [….] Kubrick, whose attention to the smallest detail in every frame was obsessive, would have been aware of George C. Scott's facial gymnastics, and yet he endorsed them, and when you watch Strangelove you can see why. Scott's work is hidden in plain view. […] Yet you don't consciously notice his expressions because Scott sells them with the energy and conviction of his performance. He means what he says so urgently that the expressions accompany his dialogue instead of distracting from it.”
In a film full of favorite scenes, my very favorite is Peter Seller’s phone call to the Russian Premier. Rumor has it that Sellers improvised great swaths of dialogue during filming. Proof of this can be seen in the film itself. Watch Peter Bull as Ambassador de Sadesky in the background of the scene. At several points, he is obviously trying not to laugh. Apparently, Sellers ruined take after take of the scene as cast members and crew exploded with laughter. Here is the beginning of his monologue—but you owe it to yourselves to check out the whole thing here:
Hello? Uh, Hello? Hello, Dmitri? Listen, I can't hear too well, do you suppose you could turn the music down just a little? A-ha, that's much better. Yeah, yes. Fine, I can hear you now, Dmitri. Clear and plain and coming through fine—I'm coming through fine too, eh? Good, then. Well then, as you say, we're both coming through fine. Good. Well, it's good that you're fine, and—and I'm fine. I agree with you. It's great to be fine. [Laughs] Now then, Dmitri, you know how we've always talked about the possibility of something going wrong with the bomb, the BOMB, Dmitri, the hydrogen bomb. Well now, what happened is, uh, one of our base commanders, he had a sort of - Well, he went a little funny in the head. You know—just a little funny. And uh, he went and did a silly thing. Well, I'll tell you what he did. He ordered his planes...to attack your country…
Well, let me finish, Dmitri. Let me finish, Dmitri. Well, listen, how do you think I feel about it? Can you imagine how I feel about it, Dmitri? Why do you think I'm calling you—just to say hello? Of course I like to speak to you! Of course I like to say hello! Not now, but any time, Dmitri. I'm just calling up to tell you something terrible has happened. It's a friendly call. Of course, it's a friendly call. Listen-- if it wasn't friendly… you probably wouldn't have even got it.
Dr. Strangelove’s Three Miracles: Flawless casting, cross-cutting that has never been bested in an American narrative film, and Peter Seller’s amazing versatility in three major roles. No matter where we look, Sellers seems to be the boss of our collective fate.
En nomine Kubrick, y Sellers, y spiritu Terry Southern, Amen…
Because I am capable of being JUST as sorry as you are.