#1 — Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)
It may be that true cinematic genius stems less from an ability to fulfill a particular vision to the letter and more from a knack for pulling together all the unwieldy challenges that beset any production into a coherent, satisfying finished product. When pieces threaten to go flinging off the rig while it’s moving at top speed is when a director’s talent is truly tested. Compromises can always be transformed into advantages, but it takes someone with the intellect, patience, creativity and recognition of the value of happy accidents to do it. When Stanley Kubrick made Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, he didn’t want to cast Peter Sellers in multiple roles (it was insisted on by the studio, attributing much of the box office success of Kubrick’s Lolita to Sellers’ playful, identity-shifting performance as Clare Quilty), he had to contend with George C. Scott’s discomfort with playing the material as broadly as was called for and he went down a few creative blind alleys, most notably the famed pie fight scene that was shot but not used in the finished film. Kubrick had to be shrewdly adaptive throughout the process, from taking Peter George’s novel Red Alert from the serious to the bleakly comic (aided by George himself and Terry Southern, co-conspirators on the screenplay) to the complicated shoot to the final assemblage, the last with the added task of threading the multiple improvisational digressions of Sellers into the film in a coherent manner. Making this chaos into a resounding satisfying work of art is a crazy task, but, as I alluded to above, we are in the territory of genius here.
Dr. Strangelove is Kubrick’s attempt to make sense of the heightened Cold War paranoia and tension that helped define the first half of the nineteen-sixties. Always a sardonic observer of human foible, Kubrick naturally determined that the only way to confront this aspect of global life–especially the bizarro strategy of mutually assured destruction–was with the blackest of comedy. The plot begins with the alarmingly realistic notion that a stockpile of weapons can become the tool of destructive misuse through the actions of a single individual, even one whose clearly toppled off his rocker. That describes Brigadier General Jack. D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), who strays from his soliloquies about the dangers of fluoridated ice cream and sharing one’s essence during the physical act of love long enough to order a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. That sets off a flurry of arguments and strategic conjecture in the Unites States “War Room,” with U.S. President Merkin Muffley (Sellers) and General Buck Turgidson (Scott) representing dovish and hawkish approaches, respectively. Unable to reach the plane bound for Mother Russia, the American officials are forced to engage in varied discussion with Russian counterparts to figure out how to extricate the planet from pending nuclear annihilation.
Kubrick’s bleak sense of humor suits the topic well, and his sense of timing throughout the film is pinpoint perfect. He knows when to hustle and bustle through scenes, playing up the kinetic energy as the tension increases, and then when to slow down the filmmaking process to simple soak in a brilliant comic set piece, such as the long held shot on President Muffley as he makes a bad news phone call to the Soviet premier. And if Kubrick’s subterfuge to get Scott to go bigger and bigger in his acting eventually angered the actor when he found out the director used what were promised to be “practice takes,” the results are worth the hard feelings. I mean it with complete sincerity and stripped of as much hyperbole as I can manage when I call Scott’s performance here one of my four or five favorites ever committed to film. The actors are uniformly strong (Hayden manages to be simultaneously hilarious and terrifying), but Scott is incredible, wringing every bit of wryly funny petulance out lines that signal the self-perpetuating folly of constant arms escalation: “Gee, I wish we had one of them doomsday machines.”
Every bit of the film contributes to its marvelous whole, including the beautifully realized War Room set, a triumph of art direction, and the rich, evocative black and white cinematography, by the masterful Gilbert Taylor. Kubrick’s satire traverses the fine line between outrageousness and pointed truth with acrobatic ease, exposing the lunacy of nations that preserved the peace by hovering shaky fingers directly over buttons that could eradicate mankind if pressed. Unthinkable as drama, it makes for grand comedy, at least as long as the right creator is presiding over it. Dr. Strangelove had the exact right creator, one who had the wherewithal–and, yes, the genius–to shape its glorious mayhem into something vivid and vital.