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KUBRICK @Feature #7: 1964’s Dr. Strangelove

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This will be my only credit abbreviation. But what Kubrick fan worth his precious bodily fluids, doesn’t realize that the full onscreen title reads: “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”? I remember folks telling me decades ago, that this film was meant to be taken seriously, but unintentionally supplied laughter, so they labeled it a satire. Not certain if that counts as myth, bullshit, or both–but I never bought it. I mean, the setup for the damn joke is presented as soon as the damn opening scroll! But Stanley was probably the subject of more urban legends than most. For instance, I’m sure we’ll get to that faked moon-landing nonsense before long.

I’m almost certain that I’m approaching ten viewings of this. Scattershot ones, at the very least. I have childhood images in my brain of adults trying to show me Slim Pickens riding that hydrogen bomb to his doom–all of our doom. Funny? It disturbed me then, it disturbs me now. And at 51, as well as just weeks removed from my country’s Presidential Election, it’s disturbing me again for an all new variety of reasons. Oh, and Fidel Castro passed away within this week! Everything old is new again. I understand that Peter George’s novel Red Alert (the basis for “Dr. Strangelove”) is all about serious. Kubrick, on the other hand, made a black comedy out of the material. And talk about black as pitch.

Two full watches of “Dr. Strangelove” this time around, via my spanking new Criterion Collection Blu-ray. It looks smashing. From truncated television views, to multiple VHS experiences, to this. And I can’t get over how prescient it is. Also, for all the (deserved) plaudits heaped upon the triptych of performances from the brilliant Peter Sellers, holy-freaking-cow concerning George C. Scott and Slim Pickens! In fact, General Buck Turgidson could be my favorite George C. performance–although I imagine that should prompt me to look at “Patton” again to confirm. And if you feel that Slim had a career-long shtick that almost never deviated–I won’t argue. But damn, it was probably never executed more perfectly than here.

Now, about Mr. Sellers. Three wildly diverse roles, calibrated to perfection–and there was supposed to be a fourth. Mr. Sellers was originally set to play Major T. J. “King” Kong, instead of Mr. Pickens–until an on set injury ended the attempt for a quad. You shouldn’t feel cheated in the slightest. Peter Sellers will always be regarded as a genius, and Slim Pickens will always be remembered as the iconic “cowboy on the bomb”. So, win win. Sterling Hayden as General Jack D. Ripper, and all his ramblings about the fluoridation of water. Keenan Wynn as Colonel Bat Guano, and his warning about answering to the Coca-Cola company. Marvelous. Oh, those names…I know. A bit over-the-top (there’s even a reference to a Premier Kissoff), but it bizarrely works.

Now, this is a movie about accidental nuclear annihilation, and it was a hit with the critics, and at the box office. Its January 1964 release date was uncomfortably close, to the assassination of JFK. So, a line was deleted, and rerecorded, to say “Vegas” instead of “Dallas”. Also, this satirical motion picture must have been something to see, so soon after the very real Cuban Missile Crisis of late 1962. And Mr. Sellers as President Merkin Muffley, chatting on the war room phone with the unheard Premier Dimitri Kissoff (“Do you suppose you could turn the music down just a little?”), is seriously some of the most deliriously satisfying film acting you’ll ever witness. I could watch that conversation for hours on end. And do you realize that the original filmed ending to “Dr. Strangelove” was a pie fight in the War Room? Evidence exists, if you are in doubt.

Ken (James Bond designer) Adams created unforgettable sets–especially the incredible War Room. And the airplane scenes, inside and out, are remarkable. The cockpit stuff for feeling unquestionably real, and the flying representations for expertly straddling that edge of phony. This feature sports the film debut of James Earl Jones as the B-52’s bombardier, years ahead of being immortalized for flying otherworldly instruments of death. Call it a warmup. Tracy Reed is dead sexy, and spot on, as Turgidson’s mistress and secretary, Miss Scott…as well as a former Playboy centerfold, Miss Foreign Affairs. And that opening mid-air refueling scene! Is it sexual? Is it Oedipal? Maternal? Fondness for this work is a “Strange love”, isn’t it?

Yeah, “Dr. Strangelove” is a Kubrick masterpiece. Every time I return to it, it makes that opinion/fact clear, very early one. It received four Oscar nominations, by the way. For Picture and Director, along with one for Sellers’ acting, and for the screenplay from Peter George, Terry Southern, and Stanley himself. Outside of the obvious technology advancements, I don’t expect this one to “age” any time soon. I’ll even entertain the argument that this is Kubrick’s finest work. It’s not a bad call. I’m betting that I’ll watch this again and again, and continuously find new things to love. Ten films to cover after this, but methinks this is the first masterpiece, of the three I’ve chronicled, so far. More of those on the way, is a no-brainer.

Grade:  A+

KUBRICK coming in December: the roll of ten has been completed, and the winner is Stanley’s swan song. His 13th, and final, feature film, 1999’s “Eyes Wide Shut”

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