Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Cinema Bestius: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

We no longer need to search to find this black comedy. Or this terrific movie.

#9 - Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
The Pope remembers staying up late as a boy (#TheOtherYoungPope) in order to watch Dr. Strangelove on local television. Chicago CBS affiliate Channel 2 was often showing it at midnight or two in the morning. I thought I was the only one who knew about this incredible film. Years later, I read an interview in Chicago magazine with the Channel 2 employee who scheduled the movies. He admitted the station would just show crap in the afternoon and early evening; that’s when everyone was watching. He said those people would watch anything. Great movies, he explained, were scheduled in the wee, small hours in the morning, when he knew discerning film fanatics would seek them out. I felt strangely vindicated.

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).
I remember when my high-school Film Study teacher screened Dr. Strangelove in class… to total silence. Three weeks later I drove to the Varsity Theater in Evanston to see it on the big screen. The audience there laughed so loudly they drowned out much of the dialogue. This was one of my first lessons in the huge divide between “school” and “real life.” I still thank that teacher, Mr. Ron Johnson, from the bottom of my heart for trying to introduce us to the classics.

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.

In the Pentagon’s War Room, General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) counsels President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) about what to do next. Turgidson advises an all-out sneak attack in an effort to catch the Russians “with their pants down.” The President decides to call the Russian Premier and provide information to help the Russians shoot down our planes instead.

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.
Meanwhile, Major King Kong (Slim Pickens, in the role of a lifetime) pilots his bomber plane towards its Russian target. Damaged by a Russian missile, the plane continues its course to its target, flying so low that it cannot be picked up on radar. Will the planet be destroyed? Should fighting be allowed in the War Room? Will we meet again?

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.
The performances in the film are without peer. Peter Sellers has the flashiest job, given that he plays three separate roles (and was supposed to play a fourth until a broken ankle kept him from essaying the Major Kong part), but George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, and Slim Pickens all give Sellers a run for his money, delivering standout performances and demonstrating the age-old rule that the best way to play comedy is to play it straight.

In fact, every time I watch the film, I am more and more taken with George C. Scott’s performance, all the more because Scott was not known as a comedian. Roger Ebert was a fan too. In his Great Movies series, Ebert writes,

“[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.”
This movie also marks my first faltering steps away from film fandom and towards film scholarship. Gerald Mast’s book The Comic Mind spends many pages on Dr. Strangelove. Reading it as a boy, I was knocked out that a filmmaker could add so much subtext to a seemingly simple black comedy. Mast posits that Kubrick equates sex with death: from the two planes “refueling” each other during the opening credits, to the sexually suggestive names of all the principle characters, to Strangelove’s suggestion that man must abandon monogamous sexual relationships if the planet is to be repopulated. This was heady stuff (heh heh) for a twelve-year-old, and only left me CRAVING MORE!

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:

President Muffley
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.


  1. Great article, JB! I love this movie - it was an instant all-time favourite the first time I watched it five years ago and I've only watched it once again. I think third time's the charm for really picking out the fine details and I'll pay particularly close attention to George C. Scott (Buck Turgidson! I mean one of the great character names of all time)'s performance next time around. My theme for January has been new-to-me, but I'm thinking it's going to February Favourites to get me through the Monday of months.

    Assuming you've shown it, how does it play for a modern high-school student audience?

    1. I stopped showing it in film class years ago. Today's students don't find it funny and they find the ending terrifying... sigh.

    2. do expand on that. is it too close to reality?

    3. The comedy is too subtle. They are used to today's comedies where the jokes are telegraphed and then explained. They don't find the film's concluding "We'll Meet Again" montage to be ironic or satiric in any way. They are either confused or frightened by it. Sigh.

    4. As a high school student myself, I found this film funny, but more unsettling than anything else. I wouldn't attribute students' lack of reaction to a change of sense of humor but more just plain fear. This is a scary and pessimistic film, but one that laughs in the face of seemingly inevitable doom. This movie was made by and for a generation where that fear was preexisting. In my generation, that fear is not as present, so it's appearance in any movie, especially a comedy, is upsetting.

  2. My favorite dark comedy, political movie, and Kubrick film all rolled into one. An unbelievably amazing movie. I'm so sad the students don't react well to it anymore.

  3. Great piece. Nice insight from Wil A above as well. I was bummed reading some comments from youngsters somewhere noting how unfunny they thought this movie was.
    One of the best insights from the DVD supplements is about Scott's performance. Apparently almost every take used was the last filmed when Kubrick would ask Scott to "go for it" and play it as broad as possible. The actor was reportedly furious with this choice, preferring his restrained, serious performance.

  4. Bob Newhart's got nothing on Peter Sellers for funny one-sided phone conversations.

    Check out Scott's expression just after he hangs up with his girlfriend in the war room. He looks like a kid who's worried about being caught chewing gum in school.

  5. Thanks for the insight Wil - interesting and it makes sense. So THAT's the problem with today's youth - they lack a healthy fear of the complete annihilation of the human race. ;)

    Maybe that's how Trump will Make America Great Again! :(