FILM REVIEW: DR. STRANGELOVE
By Michael Wilmington
Tribune Movie Critic
The greatest nuclear holocaust comedy of all time, Stanley Kubrick's darkly hilarious 1964 film "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb," reopens this weekend in a new 35mm print at the Music Box Theatre. This landmark movie's madcap humor and terrifying suspense remain undiminished by time.
If anything, Kubrick's icy-fingered comedy - of government and military leaders gone bonkers, a fail-safe system in chaos, a bomber crew winging relentlessly toward Armageddon triggered by a psycho general obsessed with "bodily fluids" - seems more prescient and on-target than ever, even though the world it draws, of nuclear stalemate and Cold War power politics, no longer exists.
Or so we'd like to think.
Back in 1964, the 35-year-old Kubrick's screwball masterpiece tweaked the American and Soviet establishments with a gutsy impudence that still amazes. Written by Kubrick, Texas-born satirist Terry Southern and novelist Peter George, and starring, in multiple roles, the comic genius Peter Sellers and a spot-on supporting cast (George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, James Earl Jones and Keenan Wynn), it seemed as hip, cool, brainy, perfectly crafted and dangerously outspoken as an American movie could possibly get.
I can testify that some packed '64 audiences almost fell off their chairs laughing at "Strangelove" - though if you saw it in emptier theaters, the film markedly changed, becoming much darker and scarier. "Strangelove," a project which began as a sober, serious film about the dangers of nuclear attack, from co-scenarist George's notably unfunny novel, had gradually metamorphosed in the scripting into a wild comedy full of Goon Show surrealism, Ealing Comedy wit and Marx Brothers zaniness, packed with characters named Col. Bat Guano, Gen. Jack D. Ripper and President Merkin Muffley - not to mention the ineffable Dr. Strangelove himself. It now seems a flawless crystallization of the anxieties and absurdities of the Cold War years, a great film whose comic mirror on the '60s reflects things all too real today.
Sellers, who also had done brilliant multi-character turns in "Lolita" and "The Mouse that Roared," plays three roles here: the spit-and-polish but increasingly distraught RAF Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake, trapped in a room with the crazy Ripper, who started the attack; mild-mannered President Muffley, who's trying to stop it; and White House advisor Dr. Strangelove, a dark-glassed former Nazi scientist in a wheelchair, with a nightmare smile and a prosthetic arm that keeps going wildly out of control in "Heil Hitler" salutes and psychotic gropes. This was the great comic actor's finest hour (or three), made the same year he and Blake Edwards invented Inspector Clouseau in "The Pink Panther" and "A Shot in the Dark."
"Dr. Strangelove," like other Kubrick classics, is about seemingly perfect systems disrupted or destroyed by the human factor. In what should have been a perfectly calibrated balance of terror between nuclear superpowers, Gen. Ripper (gloweringly played by Sterling Hayden) deliberately triggers a nuclear assault on the Soviet Union.
Ripper, a political-religious fanatic who misinterprets his own sexual dysfunction as fruit of a Soviet plot to poison America through water fluoridation, also triggers a desperate political-military-diplomatic effort by Muffley and his advisors in the war room (a marvelous Fritz Langian set) to stave off disaster - which they learn will be inevitably set off by the USSR's secret deterrent weapon, the Doomsday Machine, set to obliterate all human life in the event of any attack.
What follows is one of the great political satires and war thrillers, with three riveting, nerve-rending plot strands twisting together like a fuse about to blow. Aboard the U.S. bomber plane The Leper Colony, with its deadly H-bomb payload, the rustic, good-humored commander, Maj. "King" Kong (a role also intended for Sellers but filled superbly by ex-rodeo clown Pickens) and a crew with the young Jones (as Lt. Lothar Zogg) speed unknowingly toward their target points.
Meanwhile, in Ripper's office, the dedicated lunatic Ripper blasts away at a U.S. assault team outside while the nearly distraught Mandrake tries to worm the recall code out of him. And in the War Room, the reasonable but out-manned Muffley ("Can you imagine how I feel, Dimitri?"); the raunchy, gung ho Turgidson ("Mr. President, I'm beginning to smell a great big fat Commie rat!"); and the increasingly unhinged Dr. Strangelove ("Mein Fuehrer! I can walk!") juggle the fate of all mankind, due in the gathering night for an ultimate zero hour.
Kubrick's films, it is plausibly said, are all haunted by the offstage presence of the Holocaust. Here, his chilling worldview and special cinematic brilliance - aided by the ingenious script, by Gilbert Taylor's peerless black-and-white noir cinematography, the great sets, the magnificently ironic use of the songs "Try a Little Tenderness" and "We'll Meet Again," by Anthony Harvey's nerve-shredding editing and that phenomenal cast - struck a popular chord he never achieved again. The result: an all-time classic of humor, horror and suspense - and warning.
Just as you can only destroy a planet once, you can probably only make a film like "Dr. Strangelove" (or "Citizen Kane") once in a lifetime. We're fortunate Kubrick and company made it in ours.
"Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb"
Directed and produced Stanley Kubrick; written by Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter George, based on George's novel, "Red Alert"; edited by Anthony Harvey; production designed by Ken Adam; music by Laurie Johnson. A Columbia/Tri-Star release; opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre. Running time: 1:35. No MPAA rating (parents cautioned for racy jokes and some violence).
Dr. Strangelove, Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley - Peter Sellers
Gen. Buck Turgidson - George C. Scott
Gen. Jack D. Ripper - Sterling Hayden
Col. Bat Guano - Keenan Wynn
Maj. T.J. "King" Kong - Slim Pickens
Ambassador de Sadesky - Peter Bull
Lt. Lothar Zogg - James Earl Jones