Janus Film Review Presents: Dr. Strangelove (1964)

as reviewed by Tom

Format Reviewed: DVD/Columbia Tri-Star (2002).

Madmen with their fingers hovering over the Big Red Button. Government committees sitting in a large room trying to make decisions before the countdown results in global annihilation. Sound familiar? Made in the shadow of the Cuban Missile Crisis and slap back in the middle of the Cold War, Dr Strangelove's political machinations echo through the subsequent decades. Look up the definition of the word 'satire' in the dictionary, and Dr Strangelove will likely be there, front and centre.

Sterling Hayden plays unhinged General Ripper, obsessed with protecting “precious bodily fluids”, who issues Wing Attack Plan R, an emergency war plan aimed at Russian targets. Convinced that water fluoridation is a Russian conspiracy, he bypasses the usual chain of command, resulting in the rather ineffective President Muffley (Peter Sellers, in one of three roles) and assorted officers being briefed in the War Room by General 'Buck' Turgidson (a marvellous George C. Scott) in order to decide a plan of action.

Kubrick was notorious for not being an 'actor's director', demanding take after take in the search for perfection, perhaps seeing actors as an irritation, spoiling the view. However far he pushed his actors to their limits though, he always got great performances from them. Dr Strangelove is no exception. Kubrick had heated disagreements with George C. Scott over how the role of Turgidson should be played. Kubrick wanted the growling, gurning and gum chewing whereas Scott preferred more subtlety. Ultimately, Kubrick's request won out, and indeed, where Peter Sellers perhaps has the more showy role – in fact, three showy roles! – Scott's performance is the lynchpin of the film.

As can be expected of a Kubrick film, it is obsessively well put together; a satire filmed in the style of a thriller. From dark, low angle close ups of General Ripper, to wide angle shots of Ken Adam's beautifully designed War Room, to back projected footage of Western stalwart Slim Pickens riding a nuclear missile like a rodeo champion, the film skirts a fine line between satire, farce, comedy and tragedy in a way only a few films – such as Armando Iannucci's recent The Death of Stalin – have managed since.

The brilliantly irreverent “hello, Dimitri” scene is probably one of the finest improvised scenes in cinema. How the other actors kept a straight face is a marvel. Throughout, the complete lack of communication between the powers that be and the men in the sky is hilariously and terrifyingly farcical. A pertinent example of this is Group Captain Mandrake (Sellers again, as arguably the only voice of reason in the entire film), trying to contact the President with the 3-digit code necessary to call off the attack. With the phone lines down at the Air Base, his only option is to use a nearby payphone without sufficient spare change. The film cleverly shows how quickly paranoia and distrust can percolate through a situation.

Dr Strangelove was a brave film for its times. The fact that the issues it deals with are just as prescient now is both a tribute to the visionary screenwriters and director, and a sad indictment of the abuse of power. It is a superlative satire that stays on just the right side of farce (a final scene involving a food fight in the War Room was ultimately decided against) and, apart from a slightly incoherent conclusion (the admittedly hilarious “Mein Fuhrer, I can walk!”), Dr Strangelove barely puts a sinister gloved hand wrong.

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