Sunday, July 20, 2014

On the Big Screen: DR. STRANGELOVE or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

The story goes that Peter Sellers was supposed to play four roles in Stanley Kubrick's nuclear-war comedy. The versatile actor was already playing the title character, a German scientist who finds it increasingly difficult to repress his Nazi reflexes as doomsday nears, as well as the President of the United States and an RAF liaison to the renegade general Jack D. Ripper, whose obsession with flouride's threat to his purity of essence triggers Armageddon. Kubrick wanted Sellers in all four major locations of the story and had him slated to play Major Kong, the commander of a bomber deployed by Ripper. Sellers reportedly balked at the fourth role, doubting his ability to do a Texas accent, and finally was replaced after an injury, so that Slim Pickens finally takes the ride down with the bomb, a-whoopin' and a-hollerin' as, in retrospect, only he could. There's no reason to doubt this story, but it's one of those moments when Kubrick's judgment must be questioned, as when he contemplated climaxing the film with a pie fight in the War Room. Sellers simply doesn't belong on board the bomber; his presence would have undermined an effect that I presume was intentional on Kubrick's part. Sellers would have distanced and distracted the audience from the suspense the director quite deliberately develops at two crucial points. The first is when the bomber crew struggles to evade a Russian missile; the second when technical problems resulting from the missile attack imperil the mission to drop an atomic bomb. At these moments Kubrick, aided by composer Laurie Johnson, veers from comic to thriller mode. Johnson's theme for the bomber is "When Johnnie Comes Marching Home," and its initial effect is parodic. But as the missile closes in on the bomber in ten-mile, five-mile and finally one-mile increments, and later as Kong struggles to fix the mechanism to open the bomb-bay door, Johnson finds a rhythmic riff between verses and escalates it. The music sells the tension powerfully, but what are we tense about? It seems that during the missile attack, at least, Kubrick is tempting the audience to root for the bomber crew, despite our knowledge of the terrible consequences should they evade the missile and succeed in their mission. I dare say that Kubrick is showing off his ability to manipulate audiences with every cinematic trick in the book -- and to prove the point, arguably, he does it again at the supreme moment. As the miles to the target are counted down and Kong struggles with the wiring, are we really entirely rooting against him? We should be -- but then again this is a comedy and we wouldn't want to abort a gag. But it would be the wrong type of comedy if it were Peter Sellers sitting on the bomb. Kubrick films the attack on Burpleson Air Force Base to stop General Ripper in a verite style superficially similar to the realism of the bomber scenes, but I doubt whether anyone roots for Ripper, with Sellers as Group Captain Mandrake at his side, to repel the attackers. Ripper is too obviously a lunatic, while the bomber crew, even the clownish-sounding Kong, are ordinary men in a way Sellers would not have been.  Early, Kong lectures his crew about the human emotions they're bound to feel at the prospect of nuclear war. There's something satiric about his talk, since we feel sure at this early point that real human emotions would inspire these men to abort the mission regardless of orders or duty. But if we find ourselves wanting them to survive the missile attack later, it's as if a trap has been sprung implicating us and our human emotions in the doomsday to come. It's as if Kubrick, widely regarded as distant from human emotion, was explaining why that might be so. It'd be funny if he saved something like a statement of principles for his funniest film.

Dr. Strangelove is one of the funniest films ever, perhaps because we needed to laugh at the thought of Doomsday in 1964 and still do now in our age of Preppers. The audacity of Kubrick and Terry Southern's imagination (adapting Peter George's more conventional thriller) has aged well, as does Kubrick's mastery of sound comedy, particularly the comedy of the human voice. This is where Sellers comes in heroically handy, his clipped British tones as Mandrake contrasting wonderfully first with Sterling Hayden's paranoid growl, then with Keenan Wynn's flat laconic idiocy; his President Muffley's adenoidal tones contrasting authoritatively with George C. Scott's redneck bluster, then shifting to diplomatic baby talk on the phone with the Soviet premier; his Strangelove's teutonic drawl clashing with Peter Bull's melodramatic plumminess as the Soviet ambassador and with Sellers himself as the President. I still say Sellers couldn't have substituted for Pickens's authentic physical presence, but in his three roles he is an invaluable asset, while the other actors mentioned are uniformly inspired. Strangelove is playing this week at Albany's house of movie revivals, the Madison Theater, and it's worth seeing on the big screen if only to notice Dr. Strangelove sitting quietly at the War Room round table -- I think it's a double for Sellers with the unmistakable wig -- for at least half an hour, not speaking until spoken too like a good authoritarian, during Sellers' slow-burn colloquy with a manic Scott. Of course, it's worth seeing on a big screen because that's what it was made for, and it's great to have a venue, fifty years after Strangelove opened, where it can be seen at its proper scale.

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