Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Film classics: Dr Strangelove

[Did this for the New Sunday Express]

In the early 1960s director Stanley Kubrick bought the rights to a Cold War thriller titled Red Alert, about mutually assured nuclear destruction between the US and the USSR. The film was originally meant to be shot from a straight script, but after a couple of reads and some reflection, it occurred to Kubrick that only a pitch-black comedy could do justice to such a horrific premise. This epiphany resulted in the creation of one of the funniest, most mordant films ever.

Dr Strangelove: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is such a fully realised movie, its nihilistic humour so organic to its effect, that it's now hard to imagine how it could ever have been conceptualised differently. Or how it could have been made without Peter Sellers, that master improviser who played three roles here and took them so far beyond the ambit of the original script that he must be seen as a near-equal collaborator along with Kubrick and screenwriter Terry Southern.

The plot is simple and frighteningly believable, even if the character names come from the broad slapstick tradition: Commie-phobic General Jack D Ripper (Sterling Hayden), paranoid about a supposed Soviet plot to "sap the precious bodily fluids of the American people", uses a loophole in the normal chain of command required for nuclear attack and despatches military planes to destroy most of the USSR. A meeting is urgently called at the Pentagon War Room, but there's little the colourless and ineffectual American President Muffley can do to avert disaster – especially after the revelation that the Russians have a "Doomsday Device" that will destroy the earth in the event of a first strike by the US.

If any film can be a collection of setpieces stacked side by side, this is it. I have too many favourite scenes to list here, but I particularly love the ones where Muffley (the most subdued of Sellers' roles, and probably the most difficult) struggles to control his rising panic: the look of barely suppressed alarm mixed with embarrassment on his face when Ripper's letter is read out in the War Room (making it obvious that the general is off his rocker) is worth the price of admission.

Muffley's blandness is in stark contrast to the war-mongering buffoonery of General Buck Turgidson (George C Scott), obsessed with one-upmanning the Commies even in the face of universal catastrophe. ("Mr President, we cannot allow a mine-shaft gap!" are his memorable last words, in response to the proposal that selected individuals be sent to live underground to propagate the species; he can't even bear the thought that a hundred years hence, when it's safe for people to resurface, the "mine-shaft Soviets" might be in better shape than the "mine-shaft Yanks".) Scott is superb, but credit for the final effect of his performance goes equally to Kubrick, who cleverly edited the Turgidson scenes, abruptly cutting here and there, to make him seem like a cartoon character (perhaps the bulldog in Tom and Jerry?). He could be a stand-in for every jingoistic military man or politician who's ever had a finger poised near the nuclear button.

I don't think I'm spoiling anything by revealing that Dr Strangelove ends with a cowboy-pilot riding a bomb down to its target, and a chilling final montage of mushroom clouds over the earth, accompanied by Vera Lynn's mellifluous voice singing "We'll Meet Again". This is the moment the film's sustained lunacy has been heading for all along, and anything less would have been anti-climactic. It's tempting to call Dr Strangelove a cautionary work that is more relevant than ever in today's polarised world – but at its heart it might simply be a great film that has a lot of fun watching the world blow itself up.

DVD Extras
The sumptuous 40th Anniversary two-disc edition has the documentaries "Inside the Making of Dr Strangelove", "No Fighting in the War Room" and "The Art of Stanley Kubrick", as well as split-screen interviews with Peter Sellers and George C Scott (with the actors in character, pretending to answer questions on the phone)

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