Saturday, October 11, 2008

This Month on TCM: "Dr. Strangelove..." (1964)

On Saturday, October 18th, TCM is showing Dr. Strangelove Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Stanley Kubrick's greatest film and one of the single greatest movies of the twentieth century.

It's always a little more difficult to make the case for why a film is in your opinion one of the very greatest. I could much more easily play devil's advocate with Dr. Strangelove and list it's faults: it's ending is a bit clumsy; Sellers, as brilliant as he is, plays Strangelove and Mandrake a little too "sketch comedy"; the characters are given very little depth; there is almost nothing in the way of subplots; the special effects have dated.

But let me start over.

Dr. Strangelove takes on the biggest question of human fallibility, puts a human face to it, and makes us realize that for all our advances, we've mucked it up. The plot concerns a U. S. army general named Jack D. Ripper (played by Sterling Hayden), who, "goes a little funny in the head" and launches a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, using an emergency attack plan that bypasses the normal chain of command. The film wastes no time getting started, and there is not one bit of padding in its lean 93-minute running time.

The acting is superb and when you think you've identified the best performance among the principles, you replace it with another one, until you realize these are among the best performances on film, period: Sellers' three-character tour de force; George C. Scott's grimacing, overzealous four-star general; Sterling Hayden's steely-eyed nutjob, who fears a "loss of essence"; Slim Pickens' duty-bound air force major.

As satires or black comedies go, Dr. Strangelove has more actual laughs than most. Even when the one-liners fade with repeat viewings, the "character" comedy holds up. The centerpiece of the comedic bits is the President's initial conversation with the Russian Premier to break the news of the imminent attack ("Now then Dimitri..."). Partly adlibbed, and heard only from the President's end, this conversation underscores the humanity behind society's machinations: how, indeed do you inform someone that the world may be coming to an end. In fact, this is essentially what the movie is all about. Every time a character speaks, no matter what they say, it sounds idiotic in the face of World War III and nuclear annihilation-- Slim Pickens' Major Kong tells his crew that they will surely be up for promotions and personal citations; George C. Scott's General Turgidson worries that the Russian ambassador will see the "big board"; Keenan Wynn's officious Colonel Guano doesn't want to damage the Coke machine.

To take on my own list of "issues" with Strangelove, I'll begin with Sellers' approach to the characters he plays. His performance of the President is without fault, but his Group Captain Lionel Mandrake and scientist Dr. Strangelove have a foot in mimicry and caricature. Mandrake, though, is a blowhard ("Oh hell.") and Strangelove is psychotic. In fact, Sellers originally played the President for laughs, but Kubrick stepped in and had Sellers switch gears. In many ways, because Sellers plays all three characters, and because his President is the "voice of reason," the other two have this allowance to be broad. Mandrake and Strangelove play the opposite ends of over-achievers: they represent the error of our ways, a sapping of creativity [Mandrake is by-the-book and Strangelove is all animal-instincts]. The President represents the "whole" between them.

The dispensing with much in the way of character development and subplots hinges on the gravity of the subject matter and the urgency of the film's timeline. Had the film strayed to tell the further story of General Turgidson and his mistress, for example, nothing would be gained. The function of character development and subplots is to support the main thesis and not to distract. The point of the film is driven home differently in Dr. Strangelove: not by conventional "depth" but by the continued absurdities, which, had the film ended as it was written, would have concluded with a pie fight in the war room. Which brings up the somewhat clumsy finale. The pie fight sequence (removed for various reasons including that it didn't "work") would have been a "proper" end; without it we have just one outrageous exclamation by Strangelove in its place. Although this is not the perfect finale, the actual ending of the movie happens shortly before-- and as with all classic films, it is the inevitable one. What happens after that (i.e. after Slim Pickens' last moments) is of little consequence. Maybe, after all, shorter was better.

As for the special effects, they are acceptable, particularly in black-and-white: an artifice in itself. And the Pickens's denouement is actually quite effective effects-wise. Plus, Ken Adam's set design makes up considerable ground in the "crafts" department.

Perhaps what ultimately makes Dr. Strangelove great is that it takes on the futility of creating art in the face of extinction. As seen through the creative genius of filmmaker Kubrick, we get a film that is both minutely planned yet free form (in itself, as well, it shows that while neither approach works alone, together we get something). Taking botht the film's themes and its approach in account, it's like saying, create art but have a little fun because it'll all be over some day. Strangelove is frightening and funny; luckily, the humor is so sharp, you find the dire subject matter palatable.

Dr. Strangelove Of How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb (1964): Sharp black comedy manages, through the sharpest of direction and performance, to take on doomsday itself and illustrates through absurdity, the absurdity of our need to destroy each other.

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