Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) Nuclear Noir - Satiric Masterpiece

"It doesn't get any Noir-er than The Apocalypse."

You had to have been there. The 1960s. I was a kid growing up in NYC. You couldn't help but get the feeling that you were living in the biggest bullseye on the planet. If anyplace was destined for the sobriquet "Ground Zero" it was Manhattan. The Cold War was about to boil over. The Cuban Missile Crisis and reactions to it had a way of focusing anxiety.

I remember doing nuclear attack drills in school. A bell would go off and we'd all hunker down under our desks, as if that was going to be any help. I sure this was the spark that really ignited the counterculture revolution. It got slapped into overdrive. The supposed "grown-up" were totally fucking nuts. If we don't shuck off all this institutional bull shit fast we may never enjoy life. If it feels go do it, and if you don't "do it" now you may never get to do it. We who went out, stopped worrying and "did it" all owe a big thanks to all the politico wackos of the world.

I'm reminded of a poster for sale in a Times Square Playland, it was a copy of an official Department Of Civilian Defence Notice, all the steps to take in case of a Nuclear Bomb Attack, with one added step.

You had to have been there. The film can still be enjoyed, but if you were actually there and were exposed to the hysteria it has an extra informed poignancy.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was directed, produced, and co-written by Stanley Kubrick (Killer's Kiss (1955), The Killing (1956)). The screenplay was written by Kubrick, Terry Southern (uncredited for The Collector (1965)), and Peter George (Fail-Safe (1964)), author of the novel Red Alert.  The film is an obvious spoof of Fail Safe (1964) a thriller about human and computer errors that snowball into a nuclear attack on Moscow by a squadron of American 'Vindicator' bombers.

Arctic wastes

Aerial refueling title sequence
Cinematography was by Gilbert Taylor (Seven Days to Noon (1950), Circle of Danger (1951), High Treason (1951), Stop Me Before I Kill! (1960), The Bedford Incident (1965), The Omen (1976), Flash Gordon (1980)). Music was by Laurie Johnson (The Avengers TV Series (1961–1969)).

The film stars Peter Sellers (Never Let Go (1960)) in three parts, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, a British RAF exchange officer, President Merkin Muffley, the President of the United States, and Dr. Strangelove, the wheelchair-using nuclear war expert and former Nazi. George C. Scott (Anatomy of a Murder (1959), The Hustler (1961), Naked CityTV Series (1958–1963), Hardcore (1979)) as General Buck Turgidson. Sterling Hayden (Classic Film Noir veteran) as Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper, Keenan Wynn (Song of the Thin Man (1947), Shack Out on 101 (1955), Touch of Evil (1958), Point Blank (1967), Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), ) as Colonel Bat Guano. Slim Pickens (The Getaway (1972)) as Major T. J. "King" Kong. Peter Bull (The African Queen (1951)) as Soviet Ambassador Alexei de Sadeski, James Earl Jones as Lieutenant Lothar Zogg, Tracy Reed (A Shot in the Dark (1964)) as Miss Scott, General Turgidson's secretary and mistress, and Shane Rimmer as Capt. Ace Owens, the B-52 co-pilot.

Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Sellers)

US President Merkin Muffley (Sellers)

Dr. Strangelove (Sellers)
A United States Air Force Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper goes off his nut and orders the Strategic Air Command 843rd Bomb Wing, equipped with B-52 bombers and nuclear bombs to leave their fail safe positions and attack the USSR with "Wing Attack Plan R."

General Jack D. Ripper (Hayden)
Group Captain Mandrake quickly discovers that no war order has been issued by the President. Ripper tells Mandrake that he personally ordered the attack after he discovered a Communist plot to pollute Americans' "precious bodily fluids." Ripper also tells Mandrake that he believes the Soviets have been using the fluoridation of water supplies to pollute the "precious bodily fluids" of Americans and that he came to this conclusion during "the physical act of love."

When Mandrake decides to order the Bomb Wing back, Ripper shows Mandrake a Colt automatic and locks them both in his office.  Mandrake now realizes that Ripper is insane.

General Buck Turgidson (Scott)
At the Pentagon, USAF General Buck Turgidson briefs President Merkin Muffley and other staff officers about how Plan "R" enables a senior officer to launch a strike against the Soviets if Washington, D.C. is nuked.

Muffley orders a US Army general to order an attack the SAC base and arrest General Ripper. Turgidson then jingoistically tries to persuade President Muffley to order an all out first strike against
the USSR. Muffley instead decides to bring in Soviet ambassador Alexei de Sadeski down into the Top Secret War Room, to telephone Soviet premier Dimitri Kissov on the "hot line" to give him a heads up on the looming catastrophe. Muffley also gives Kissov the list of primary and secondary targets so that the Soviet air defences can shoot them down.

When U.S. Army Colonel Bat Guano finally takes the SAC base he discovers that Ripper has blown his brains out and that Muffley may have discovered the vital three letter code to relay to the Bomb Group to turn them back.

Of the thirty four B52s on attack, thirty are turned back and four are reported shot down, except that one is just damaged, with its communications devices destroyed and leaking fuel. It's under the command of Major King Kong who shows some ingenuity and  heads it for the nearest target of opportunity. If Kong's B52 should successfully bomb that target it will trigger what ambassador de Sadeski calls a "Doomsday Device," an underground nuclear bomb cache consisting of multiple "Cobalt-Thorium G" tipped warheads. The device is connected to a massive computer network that will automatically detonate if any bombs fall on the USSR, and will shroud the Earth in a blanket of radioactive clouds, killing all surface life and making it uninhabitable for 93 years. This device cannot be disconnected it is programmed to explode if tried.

Of course Major King Kong in John Wayne mode displays some good ol' American, can do, hands on,  know how and everything goes apocalyptically Noirsville.


Major T. J. "King" Kong: Well, boys, I reckon this is it - nuclear combat toe to toe with the Roosskies. Now look, boys, I ain't much of a hand at makin' speeches, but I got a pretty fair idea that something doggone important is goin' on back there. And I got a fair idea the kinda personal emotions that some of you fellas may be thinkin'. Heck, I reckon you wouldn't even be human bein's if you didn't have some pretty strong personal feelin's about nuclear combat. I want you to remember one thing, the folks back home is a-countin' on you and by golly, we ain't about to let 'em down. I tell you something else, if this thing turns out to be half as important as I figure it just might be, I'd say that you're all in line for some important promotions and personal citations when this thing's over with. That goes for ever' last one of you regardless of your race, color or your creed. Now let's get this thing on the hump - we got some flyin' to do.

Major King Kong (Pickens)
Major T. J. "King" Kong: Survival kit contents check. In them you'll find: one forty-five caliber automatic; two boxes of ammunition; four days' concentrated emergency rations; one drug issue containing antibiotics, morphine, vitamin pills, pep pills, sleeping pills, tranquilizer pills; one miniature combination Russian phrase book and Bible; one hundred dollars in rubles; one hundred dollars in gold; nine packs of chewing gum; one issue of prophylactics; three lipsticks; three pair of nylon stockings. Shoot, a fella' could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff.

Lieutenant Lothar Zogg (Jones)

General Jack D. Rippe: Mandrake, do you recall what Clemenceau once said about war?
Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake: No, I don't think I do, sir, no.
General Jack D. Ripper: He said war was too important to be left to the generals. When he said that, 50 years ago, he might have been right. But today, war is too important to be left to politicians. They have neither the time, the training, nor the inclination for strategic thought. I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.

Soviet Ambassador Alexei de Sadeski (Peter Bull)  

Colonel Bat Guano (Wynn)

Major T. J. "King" Kong: Well, boys, we got three engines out, we got more holes in us than a horse trader's mule, the radio is gone and we're leaking fuel and if we was flying any lower why we'd need sleigh bells on this thing... but we got one little budge on them Rooskies. At this height why they might harpoon us but they dang sure ain't gonna spot us on no radar screen!

General "Buck" Turgidson: If the pilot's good, see, I mean if he's reeeally sharp, he can barrel that baby in so low... oh you oughta see it sometime. It's a sight. A big plane like a '52... varrrooom! Its jet exhaust... frying chickens in the barnyard!

The film was nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Director, and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium.

Sellers is spot on in his various roles, his inspiration for Mandrake was his spoofs during WWII of his RAF officers, his gifts for mimicry aided his Kubrickian accent for President Muffley and the NYC German accent for Dr. Strangelove (some say it's based on the Hungarian accent of Weegee Arthur (Usher) Fellig). Sterling Hayden should have won an Oscar for the portrayal of the alienated, obsessed, and absolutely mad General Jack D. Ripper. George C. Scott was excellent as enthusiastically morbid Buck Turgidson. I'll also give a loud shout out to Slim Pickens, a real hoot to watch as Major King Kong.

The design of the film is dark and at times very claustrophobic, shots of stark, barren, arctic wastelands juxtaposed against the cramped confines of the B52s cockpit, fuselage, and the mausoleum like "War Room." In other sequences B52s in flight appear to delicately be having sex as they refuel in mid air, while nuclear explosions take on an eerie bizarre beauty.

The gravity of the story and the absurdity of situations are satirized brilliantly. Hey what's changed, the more things change the more they stay the same, look at the circus in Washington today. Screencaps are from the Columbia Pictures Special Edition 2001 DVD. 10/10

The levels of humor in Dr. Strangelove

From Sergio Leone Web Board
quote from Dave Jenkins

There are, it seems to me, three levels of humor in Strangelove. You have provided an example of the first kind—“You can’t fight in here, this is the war room”—a type of comedy that appeals to 12-year-old boys and no one else. Needless to say, this is the lowest type of humor, what we could term Level One humor. But that is not the only kind of humor in the picture.

The second type of humor is typically American (for the period) and includes elements left over from vaudeville, including slapstick. When George C. Scott falls to the floor of the war room, he is, however unintentionally, mining a very deep vein of American comedy (Kubrick recognized this and incorporated the unscripted pratfall into his film). The pie fight intended for the ending but cut would have been another example of this kind of humor.

You either find slapstick funny or you don’t. But Level 2 Humor has more than that to offer: it has characters, characters who are funny simply due to their bloodymindedness. That is, they are so fixated on something or somebody that they can’t see any point of view other than their own.  They take themselves very seriously, so seriously, in fact that they cannot imagine how ridiculous they appear to others. They cannot laugh at themselves; the audience, seeing this, laughs for them, or rather, at them.

The obvious example of this type of character is the one played by Sterling Hayden, General Jack T. Ripper (the names in the film are all Level One gags). His fixation is fluoridation and its imagined consequences, a once-current topic that no longer engages anyone. No matter, this only provides a springboard from which the real gags can launch. When Mandrake asks how Ripper arrived at his “discovery”, the General’s answer—about experiencing a loss of potency during the act of lovemaking—is funny because it overlooks the obvious explanation available to the audience. And then as the character continues to talk, simple declarations that would be unfunny in other contexts are here made hilarious given their source: “I do not avoid women, Mandrake. But I do deny them my essence.”

One of my favorite lines is when Ripper, who needs help operating the machine gun in his office, says to his fellow officer, “Mandrake, get over here, the redcoats are coming!” Again, the character is so pre-occupied that he apparently can’t remember who he’s talking to. Other characters like this include General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) and Major Kong (Slim Pickens). The former gets so excited extolling the skillful piloting of American airmen that he temporarily forgets that this is a negative attribute in the present situation. And of course, Major Kong rides the bomb he loosens to ground zero as if it were a bronco, apparently oblivious to his ultimate fate.

All three characters—Ripper, Turgidson, and  Kong–are developed by the actors playing them in the typical American way (again, for the period). They all rely on ticks, mannerisms, and, most especially, props: Ripper has his cigar; Turgidson his endless sticks of gum; Kong his cowboy hat. So integral are those props that we cannot imagine the characters ever being without them. The use of props is one way to put over character (I imagine it is another legacy of vaudeville). But there is also a subtler approach.

And so we come to Level 3 humor, which is like Level 2 except without the slapstick and the props. It too is character-centric. And it is the approach adopted through much of the film by Peter Sellers.

Before going on, I should pause to mention that Sellers also practices Level 2 humor. Indeed, it seems that, surrounded as he was by the Americans, he couldn’t help but try to beat them at their own game. Thus, the character of Dr. Strangelove has not merely one prop, but two: the wheelchair, and the mechanical arm. These enable him to bring his own brand of slapstick to the picture.

But that kind of humor was not, up until that time, typical of Sellers (Inspector Clouseau was still in his future). Sellers, who came to cinema from radio, was first and foremost a vocal talent. A natural mimic, he did his best work when sounding like other people.

In Strangelove Sellers inhabits 3 separate roles; he pulls it off largely because he creates three very different voices for the 3 characters. I don’t know if Mandrake was based on an original, or is supposed to be a generic  British Officer, but the sources of Sellers other two characterizations are clear: President Muffley’s voice is based on Kubrick’s, Strangelove’s voice is copied from WeeGee’s (WeeGee, the photographer famous for his NY crime scene photos, visited the Strangelove set to do a photoessay for one of the glossy magazines of the day-- Look or Life, I don’t recall which). You only have to listen to recordings of the men’s voices to hear from where Sellers drew his inspiration.

Once he had the voices down, Sellers had his characters. And once he had his characters, he could read the most innocuous dialog and get laughs. Mandrake is funny because he takes unflappability to the point of reductio ad absurdum (When Ripper first makes his plans clear, Mandrakes response is:  “Well, if you'll excuse me saying so, sir, that would be, to my way of thinking, rather... well, rather an odd way of looking at it.”) Again, the humor operates on the principle of bloodymindedness. The funniest moment in the film for me occurs just after Ripper unceremoniously walks into the WC and closes the door. Mandrake is still nattering on, oblivious to what’s really happening, when we get the punchline: Ripper’s suicide gunshot. The timing cracks me up every time.

Similarly, President Muffley is funny because he just keeps on being his normal self in the face of mounting absurdities. Again, this is character-centered humor, a kind of approach that was ideal for Seller’s vocal talents.

There are other things, non-actorly things, that Kubrick adds to the film for humor (I leave it the reader to decide which level these correspond to)—the title sequence with the airplanes having sex in the air, for example. He likes to use music under his images to get laughs—we frequently hear “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” on the soundtrack, quiet at first, but louder and more insistent as the crisis escalates. And of course there’s the “We’ll Meet Again” ending.

Not all the humor will appeal to everyone equally. But Kubrick put in enough, at a variety of levels, that everyone should find something to laugh at. Not only 12-year-old boys.

No comments:

Post a Comment