Somehow, I had never seen Dr Strangelove. For a while, that state of affairs was just laziness, then it became a reluctance due to fear of a letdown (the same attitude that stops me venturing into “Curb Your Enthusias” or “The Sopranos” – absurd really). Then, browsing Netflix and approaching the familiar dull conclusion that there were just too many choices, I clicked on the monochrome still of a crazy looking Peter Sellers and… well, it’s every bit as good as everyone says.
What impresses first (and last) is Kubrick’s mastery of the lens. It moves continually, especially around the cigar chomping visage of Sterling Hayden’s mad General Jack D Ripper, instigator of the B52 attack on Russia. The lens may be restive, but it’s never moving just for the sake of visual stimulus – it’s always revealing another aspect of each character, image and script in harmony. This is the opposite effect of the literally nauseating camerawork in Les Miserables (and many other recent films) in which you can feel as though you’re watching the action at sea, so unsteady is the viewpoint. I also caught more than a touch of Leni Riefenstahl’s work on Olympia and, particularly in the still astonishing Flying Fotress scenes, Triumph Of The Will, lending a touch of Nazi aesthetic to the work long before Strangelove’s Touretteish right arm offers a whole lot more.
Ken Adams’ War Room is justly celebrated as one of the great sets in film history, a pre-cursor of that used in You Only Live Twice and countless other films as the lair of maniacal megalomaniacs (up to and including Mike Myers’ Dr Evil). Long before the supercasinos of Las Vegas constructed their vast gaming rooms, Adams’ captured their ambience for the highest stakes game of poker played between the American military and the Russians in an environment uncannily similar to those you find on The Strip, 50 years on.
Kubrick, not always entirely ethically, gets great performances out of his cast, led by Peter Sellers, who delivers as masterful a display of black comedy acting as Alan Arkin gives as Yossarian in Mike Nicholls’ underrated adaptation of Catch 22.
It’s hard to know where Sellers is at his best. His upper middle class RAF man, Mandrake, never quite loses his English reserve even as Armageddon is literally just over the horizon, the accent, moustache and rhythm of speech wavering, but always held by a man who reported Japanese torture as if it were a late reverse in the Varsity Match at Twickenham. It’s lovely stuff.
His President Muffley is played straight, but to hilarious effect, especially in his interactions with George C Scott’s completely overacted General Turgidson (Kubrick told Scott that the takes were only warm-ups, so he would let rip, and then used the footage – and who wouldn’t, so magnificently wild-eyed is the man who went on to win (and refuse) an Oscar as General Patton). His improvised telephone conversation with his Soviet counterpart is beautifully controlled too.
Sellers finally gets his chance to go to 11 in his cameo as Strangelove himself, a mad MAD scientist inspired by any number of MittelEuropa types, but most obviously Wernher Von Braun, architect of the Nazi V1 and V2 weapons and de facto chief of NASA’s rocketry programmes (and hence, ICBMs). Strangelove is barely a character at all, but his type, fiercely intelligent, but full of zealous commitment to ideas rather than people, are present wherever powerful people gather. It’s why the name has become a shorthand embedded forever in popular culture.
Stealing the show is a man who didn’t really know what the film was about, having not been privy to the full script. Slim Pickens pretty much played himself when acting as Major “King” Kong, commander of the rogue B52 and man utterly determined to carry out his orders. Kubrick got a good ‘Ol Texas Boy off the set and so he simply asked Pickens to be himself on the set – and he is in a piece of largely unintentional comic genius.
That the film is so good to look at gives a timeless feel to the experience of watching it, but, in a year when the US Republican Party seem in thrall to demagoguery and bombast, the satire is terrifyingly contemporary – indeed, it’s with a shiver that one is forced to acknowledge that, 53 years on, it’s barely satire at all.