Let’s Talk About ‘Dr. Strangelove’ (1964)

What makes a classic a classic?  Certainly a sense of timely commentary that effectively holds a mirror up to society better than its counterparts.  Of course, there’s a bonus, exclusive stratosphere available for the societal charges that, for one reason or another, remain evergreen. 

Perhaps it’s more simple than that.  Maybe all it comes down to is pure entertainment value; inherent “watchability” (whatever that means).  Even still, we could expect our classic to bring us that Hollywood glitz; true, blue movie star flexes, familiar names, and widespread notoriety.  If nothing else, there must be un-definable intangibles that collectively bring its viewers to the point of familiarity, of understanding that we find ourselves saying, “Yep, that movie matters.” 

Whatever the case may be, there is no certain code to crack in terms of making a bonafide Hollywood classic.  Formula be damned one simply cannot reverse engineer their way to the A.F.I. Top 100 list.  Rarer still than finding your work on said list is earning the reputation of essentially owning the list. That simply doesn’t happen.  Unless, of course, your Stanley Kubrick.

Perhaps that’s what separates Dr. Strangelove from the pack.  Because by just about every conceivable measure, Kubrick’s take on Cold War atomic annihilation and the ego posturing involved somehow captures all of these things.  And it may just be the funniest damn movie ever made to boot.

In terms of staggering, timely commentary Dr. Strangelove sets the standard.  For sheer entertainment, the film delivers a zany, absurdist political satire that explores the full spectrum of fear mongering, power, and negligence in a tight 95 minutes.  As for the magnetic pull of noteworthy stars, in 1964 (and beyond if we’re beyond honest), it certainly doesn’t get more fascinating than Kubrick himself helming the brilliance of Peter Sellers (in his prime) and bold leading man, George C. Scott.

So, then, it may in fact be safe to say that in addition to boasting the greatest subtitle of all-time, Dr. Strangelove or:  How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is the most absurdly well-rounded Hollywood classic since Casablanca

Deep in the throes of cold war fear and the threat of nuclear warfare at an all-time high; Dr. Strangelove dares to ask the question:  What if the wrong people were in charge and inadvertently pushed the button?  The ironic answer is, of course, that a bunch of power hungry men (both elected and non) will sit around a table and argue until the worst happens and no one takes responsibility.  Because, that’s America, right?

Oh, and it’s a comedy.  A damn fine comedy.  This movie assuredly exists and is every bit a delight as it is a satirical indictment of manifest destiny and value of body fluids.

The Director

When we speak to “the makings of a classic” we throw all convention out the window when entering Kubrick’s headspace.  Because on one level, it certainly feels like this movie in particular was destined for greatness … but only because of who sat in the Director’s chair.

Even to casual movie fans, Kubrick rings familiar; a near universally understood titan of the motion picture industry.  For cinephiles alike, he stands as a complex, mythical figure; a rare genius that somehow both encapsulates what we mean when we say “auteur” yet, as a visionary, stands incapable of label confinement.  His is a reputation of telling the truth.  More specifically, the unsightly underbelly of humanity.  The truths we all recognize like the back of our hands but refuse to publicly acknowledge is where he eats.  No one acutely understanding of grotesque human instinct and fractured appetites quite like Stanley Kubrick.

Where Shakespeare pulled back the curtain illuminating uncomfortable truth by opening the doors we typically lock, Kubrick takes it one step further by setting-up camp inside the deepest recesses of blackened hearts and shallow minds. Ever unflinching and deadly serious … except when he’s not.

Ultimately, that’s where we enter with Dr. Strangelove.  In the hands of another, the knee-jerk reaction to stick a thumb on the nose would be too convenient and creatively unimaginative to ignore.  Almost to fashion an energy that says, “nah-na nah-na boo-boo! See, politics are ridiculous!”. But the real genius of Strangelove is found in the self-serious stoicism. Which brings me back to this shot:

Juxtaposed with a nuanced speech, and overall energy, of commie paranoia that feels palpable … well, until we hit the “fluids”.  The straight-faced commitment of it all which seals the deal for the film is encapsulated in this one shot.  In this arena of ego-maniacal white men; of agenda driven leaders; of unabashed negligence; of ridiculously named characters; ill-equipped commanders; and white-knuckled patriotism it all plays straight; status-quo.  Standard operating procedure as far as the most important minds in this movie are concerned. 

And therein lies the joke.

Kubrick gets it; he orchestrates the tone, shots, and poignant absurdity like a maestro.  We bask in the hilarity of it all precisely because it aims not to overtly wink at the audience telling us we are feeling farcical.  We simply enter the space as though everything is not only plausible but, for better or worse, expected.  The laugher comes at the unfiltered seriousness that laces every outrageous moment because it is, in fact, just that; outrageous.  But then, again, maybe not.  I mean, the man made a movie about the fate of the world hanging in the balance at the hands of paranoid Americans and a Russian-made doomsday machine just barely after the country collectively exhaled from the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Kennedy assassination.

If that’s not bold, I don’t know what is.

Again, Kubrick gets the last laugh.  After all, for better or worse, we’re essentially laughing at ourselves are we not?  The punchline lands when we fail to fully acknowledge that perhaps there’s more adjacent truth than there is exaggeration within the frames.

The Players

May we take a moment to appreciate the collective talents of the four leading talents?  Even 55 years later it still feels remarkable to consider these names and these performances all converged under the visionary guidance of a generational director.  The likes of Sellers, C. Scott, Hayden, and Mr. Slim Pickens brings a certain level of mystique to the film as a whole.  We identify the landmark title not just by its weighty cultural significance but by the herculean talent put on full display in this playground of political games and hilarity.

Peter Sellers

Roles:  Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake / President Merkin Muffley (what a name!) / Dr. Strangelove

Key Scene #1:  Water & Commies

This is the moment, as far as I’m concerned, that cemented Sellers’ Oscar nomination.  By this point in his career, we’re already familiar with his iconic comedic chops from the likes of The Pink Panther, The Mouse That Roared, among others.  But here we see him unlock subtlety that quietly devastates.  Long before we have Chance the Gardner, we have this moment with Group Capt. Mandrake, nervous as hell, fearing for his life, yet somehow composed enough to not compromise his position.  The sweat, the anxious laugher that releases almost as a quiet breath, the folding of the gum rapper, the careful responses that keep him contained while conveying an utter loss for words … This is the balancing act of a true master of his craft.  Everything else Sellers does in this film is funnier because of his ability to pull back and tap into realism at the right moments.  Damn fine acting.

Key Scene #2:  Living Underground

Pinnacle moment of Sellers’ career, right?  Peak display of wild characterization, physical comedy, and uncanny screen command — even when confined to a wheelchair.  The man was brilliant and this single scene serves as Exhibit A.  

George C. Scott

Role:  Gen. ‘Buck’ Turgidson

Key Scene:  War Room Scene – Scenario Briefing 

God bless Stanley Kubrick for opting for George C. Scott as the bumbling, influence starving General Turgidson.  In this lone monologue we get a glimpse into precisely why that casting call was a stroke of genius.  Scott’s uniquely intense energy permeates through every eye twitch, every exaggerated syllable, and every chair shift.  We feel that vintage C. Scott gusto.  Juxtapose that with the grainy, almost Looney Toons-like timbre choices and the unfettered negligence boiling over through every sentence gives us a leading man buffoon for the ages.  In many ways, this movie belongs to Scott as much as it does Sellers. 

Sterling Hayden

Role:  Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper

Key Scene:  Ripper’s Motivations – Cigar Monologue

Chilling.  Here, in Ripper’s soliloquy, we come face-to-face with what post Cuban Missile Crisis likely felt like for thousands of Americans.  In Ripper’s case, the stakes are raised when we realize that level of calmed, patriotic paranoia has the power to push THE button.  Sobering to consider.  And to shoot that entire sequence from below, yet slightly angled, fills the screen with unadulterated authority.  Thick as the hefty smoke from his cigar.  Mix that with Hayden’s absolutely perfect line delivery and we have a bonafide moment for the ages.  Everything about this moment is alienating, flawless, and masterful.  Pour all of this movie-making-madness over a stack of pancakes for me, please.

Slim Pickens

Role:  Maj. “King” Kong

Key Scene:  Kong Rides the Bomb

I mean, was there any doubt?  That comical southern drawl and his lucky cowboy hat.  Mr. Pickens’ mere presence in this film is the closest Kubrick gets to slapstick.  Yet it’s Kong’s commitment to the mission that keeps the choice honest.  Nevertheless, even if every bit of the film remained the same it would still feel lacking without Slim filling those boots.  Top it all off with one of the most famous single shots in cinematic history, it all delivered.  Nothing quite like jubilantly yelping, “Yahoo!”, as everything incinerates seconds later.  How’s that for allegory?

What Dr. Strangelove Means to Us

If I ever need to lighten up my day, Dr. Strangelove is one of my go to movies. It’s not the type of film that will induce any hearty belly laughs, but it certainly makes me chuckle and grin the entire way through. The humour is eerily relevant today and it’s a film that has aged tremendously. The portrayals of human greed, paranoia and thirst for power elevate it beyond a simple comedy. Peter Sellers is a genius in his many guises but it’s George C. Scott who is the real standout for me. The film just wouldn’t work without his brash arrogance radiating from every scene he’s involved in. I love Stanley Kubrick’s filmography and Dr. Strangelove is just another example of how diverse his skills are. Be it horror, sci-fi or satirical comedy. He is a master of his craft.

– Lee McCutcheon

The Legacy

Nuclear war isn’t meant to be funny.  To be honest, neither is the concept of living under the guidance of a completely inept government.  Untimely annihilation and the helplessness of humanity resting in the hands of four-starred buffoons; horror stories by definition. 

Yet, here we are, celebrating a cinematic masterpiece tackling these very polarizing and nightmare inducing concepts — heralding it as a work of darkly comedic genius.

Why?  Because it is.

Dr. Strangelove or:  How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is by all accounts one of the greatest, most influential films of all-time.  The fact that such a statement isn’t really up for debate is a staggering achievement in and of itself.  But to think that Stanley Kubrick, the patron saint of the unsightly himself, captured perhaps his most approachable yet deeply outspoken film through the lens of blatant absurdism and unapologetic hysterics is a feat that boggles the mind.  

That it gave us a vehicle for a Petter Sellers at the top of his game in full multi-character form yet still nuanced enough to bring true acting chops to the forefront is a triumph.  That it gave us a George C. Scott so fast and so loose that we almost say it was a different actor altogether.  That it gave us a comedic display that remains every bit re-watchable today.  That it placed us in the throes of plausible nuclear doom in the midst of cold war paranoia and we laughed anyway is perhaps the greatest “own” a director has ever achieved.  That it continues to speak to the intersection of high-stakes and hysterics of leading a country; that it somehow represents both the worst of how it could be and the reality of how things really are; that lets us ride the euphoria of dropping the bomb with a cowboy hat on; that is stands out as damn fine filmmaking by every standard; and that it reminds us that underneath every self-serious dude starving for influence and the weight massive decisions arriving one after the other rests an inherent bit of silliness is one of the truest things seen on film.

We love Dr. Strangelove because on its own it serves as a masterclass in high-brow, unkempt comedy.  We also “love the bomb” because it speaks to something greater and we can’t help but enjoy the chance to laugh at … well, ourselves.

And if a doomsday machine actually exists, god help us all.  At least we couldn’t say Kubrick didn’t warn us, right?

What are your favorite Dr. Strangelove moments? Share your thoughts below!