July: Dr. Strangelove

The punchline to Dr. Strangelove (1964) is that everyone gets blown to hell at the end, and I don’t think they ever made it over to the mine shaft, never mind the gap. The world tumbles into a nuclear standoff when an unstable US General puts into motion a nuclear attack on the USSR. The President is called to the War Room to negotiate and observe the situation with the Russian Ambassador, a room full of generals, and the titular Dr. Strangelove. One last bomber stays in the air on its way to targets after all other squadrons are called back or shot down. The Ambassador informs the war room that if a single nuclear explosion hits the USSR, the doomsday machine automatically kicks in to destroy the world, a deterrent that had been activated, but not announced to the world. Our American airmen battle the odds to their target and the war room settles for a future where the living envy the dead, mating through their sorrow for decades. In the end, the cutting room floor saved the movie as it was supposed to end with a cream pie food fight in the war room.

Trivia Hits

Dr. Strangelove is one of those movies that is known for the story behind it and the trivia that has accumulated over the decades and through the legend of Stanley Kubrick. Some of the trivia has seeped into common knowledge about the film, although some of the tidbits have been distorted or forgotten despite the many books written on the movie

  • Peter Sellers plays three roles: The president, RAF officer and Dr. Strangelove. He almost played the bomber pilot but he hurt his ankle trying to get onto the set so Slim Pickins was hired. Sellers later improvised as the RAF officer that "the string has gone out of my leg" to Sterling Hayden when he couldn't remember his line.

  • Slim Pickins didn’t realize he was acting in a comedy and he may never have.

  • George C. Scott wanted to play his role as General Buck Turgidson as straight as he could. Kubrick would do his standard way too many takes before having Scott do one or two takes as ridiculously as possible and cut all of them into the film.

  • Kubrick started writing the movie in a serious tone before realizing that it worked better as a black comedy and brought in satirist Terry Southern to co-write.

  • The voice of Darth Vader, James Earl Jones, is the bombardier in this movie and the body of Darth Vader, David Prowse, plays a physical therapist in another Kubrick movie, Clockwork Orange.

  • Sterling Hayden as Jack D. Ripper stars in his second Kubrick movie after being the lead in The Killing.

  • The set designer of Dr. Strangelove, Ken Adam, had a jumpstart on the lair-like aesthetic of the War Room when he was the set designer of the first James Bond movie, Dr. No. The War Room’s triangle theme is reminiscent of the beautiful rumpus room set Goldfinger.

  • Dr. Strangelove is not based on Henry Kissinger who did not have a prominent foreign affairs career at the time, but of former Nazi scientist, and later NASA scientist Wernher von Braun.

  • Slim Pickins has the line “Shoot, a fella could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff” was changed from Dallas to Vegas in additional dialogue recording because JFK had just been killed in Dallas just before the movie was to come out.

  • When Reagan came into office he asked to see the War Room, not knowing it was a fictional location.

  • The documentary of the 1992 primary campaign of Bill Clinton is named War Room and features James Carville and George Stephanopoulos.

  • There is a typo in the opening credits where the text reads "Base on the book Red Alert by Peter George"

  • The tense feeling that nuclear obliteration was a imminent came from the Cuban Missile Crisis although Sellers’ presidential character Merkin Muffley embodied a more effeminate president than JFK’s masculine persona. Merkin Muffley was originally going to be an especially effeminate character, but was played with a cold. This cold is subtle on camera with just nose wipes and tissues, but on set his antics of the sickness caused the crew to erupt in laughter on many occasions.

  • Kubrick is notorious for spending longer than expected to finish shooting his movies but the similar plot of Fail Safe from director Sidney Lumet and earlier release date made Kubrick rather nervous. Lucky for him, both movies were from the same studio so, like Hitchcock buying up every copy of the novel of Psycho before the movie was released to preserve the suspense, the release of Fail Safe was pushed until after the release of Dr. Strangelove

  • Kubrick got the design of the interior of the bomber from the cover of a book, but the Pentagon was so frustrated that he was able to accurately depict the interior of the top secret craft that they suspected that the director may have acquired that information from less than legal means.

Themes

The end of the world is a matter of masculinity in Dr. Strangelove. The movie opens on an erotic display of mid-air refueling and goes right into the only scene with a female in it. Tracy Reed is Miss Scott, Buck Turgidson's secretary and mistress. She is seen lounging on Buck's bed while he is in the bathroom and takes the phone call that calls him into the War Room while wearing bikini style underwear. Perhaps that's a reference to the Bikini Atoll where nuclear testing was conducted in the '40's and '50's. It's probably more a statement to have the only use of a woman in as little clothing as possible as men have pissing contests that result in complete destruction.

Women's roles are sexual with the side-effect of being reproductive. The entire War Room slobbers over the possibility that they would be candidates to be in the male population of mine shafts where they would be out numbered by women so that they could mate and repopulate the earth when the radiation subsides above ground. While Miss Scott is the only female character of Dr. Strangelove, she seems to be the only woman in the world as she is the model in the Playboy that Major Kong is reading in the airplane.

Kubrick used similar tactics to keep the story of Dr. Strangelove in suspense as Alfred Hitchcock did to keep the story of Psycho out of the public before the release of that movie. This isn't the only parallel, they both use a similar shot of the horror villains of their movies to mark their menace and insanity. In Psycho it is the "bird shot" from beneath as Norman Bates practically turns into a bird of prey when the detective comes to see the guest ledger. Kubrick uses another shot of a prominent shadow across the throat of General Ripper after he has sent bombers away to start a nuclear war just four years later. This isn't an angle that is typical of either directors' careers, it's the only time Hitch ever used that angle on a character and Kubrick is more known for "the Kubrick Look."

The Kubrick Look is commonly thought to have originated in the long tracking shot through the milk bar in A Clockwork Orange and used in pretty much every movie afterwards. It's an ominous look from an actor whose face is angled down, their eyes look up through their eyelashes, eyebrows furrowed and a smirk on their lips. Kier Dullea, however, claims to have invented this look on the film right after Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey. It would be in a more subtle way than it is expressed by Malcolm McDowell, Jack Nicholson or Vincent D'Onofrio and is questionable whether it really counts as this "look." Stanley Kubrick had a rather dramatic look to his face with striking eyebrows and dark Eastern European eyes and was known for being demanding on set, this look could be a clear directive from him to his actors, an imitation of him by the actors or an expression of reaction from the demands of dozens of takes and flashes of anger from the director.

Dr. Strangelove and 2001 kind of set a demarcation in Kubrick's career both from black and white movies to color and as a before and after the Kubrick look that set a tone for practically supernatural menace in his movies. The early movies in black and white: The Killing, Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove, are stories of the human path through life as they hurtle toward their doomed fate. The movies in color after Dr Strangelove including 2001, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut play on a supernatural hand of menace tipping the scale of the stories. Full Metal Jacket's first story in basic training is the story of a man turning into a demon (much like The Shining) who starts with a toe in reality before changing his voice and doing something incomprehensibly evil.

Eyes Wide Shut has Tom Cruise, in my opinion, haunted by the ghost of the AIDS virus through images of his wife's infidelity, images of dreamlike sexuality and temptation from a sex worker. While he never has sex in the movie, he is faced with consequences from his own risky fantasies. Kubrick always had an interest in sexuality in his movies from Lolita to Eyes Wide Shut and even wanted to make a rated X movie with Terry Southern until his wife said that making such a project would end their marriage. Oddly, the most graphic of his sex scenes is the mid-air refueling insertions of the opening credits of Dr. Strangelove.

Note: Although Spartacus was directed by Stanley Kubrick and was in color before 2001, Kubrick doesn't consider it to be his own project, claiming only a gladiatorial fight as his own and renouncing the rest of the movie. It is thought of more as the inspiration for Kubrick to leave all outside influence aside and make his films as an auteur.

Fail Safe

At the same time that Stanley Kubrick was in production of Dr. Strangelove, Sidney Lumet was working on a movie with a similar plot. While Dr. Strangelove was based on the book Red Alert by Peter George, Fail Safe was based on a 1962 book by the same name by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler. Kubrick was more interested in making a horror movie about the cold war, even if it turned into a comedy. He didn't turn the Jack Ripper character into a full-on horror villain until Jack Nicholson in The Shining and Vincent D'Ononfrio in Full Metal Jacket. Sidney Lumet, however, spent the majority of his film career telling stories about justice and Fail Safe is more of a story of justice, The US President ordering the dropping a nuclear bomb on New York City to give justice to the USSR after an unintended nuclear attack on their country, in order to avoid a more devastating nuclear war. Oddly, out of Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe, the movie that ended in New Yorkers' last moments and a bombardier's suicide is the more optimistic ending. It's a bit of a Watchmen ending where the destruction of a city is the catalyst for world peace... or stalemate.

Lumet's career is marked with themes of justice from some of the most obvious examples in all of film history from 12 Angry Men, The Verdict, Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico. The Hill, is a lesser known movie by Lumet about a Military Police prison during World War II, starring Sean Connery and Ossie Davis about the military making exceptions of individuals in order to regain order and authoritative strength. It's another perfect companion piece to another Kubrick film that is also one of my favorites, Paths of Glory, about the execution of three soldiers from a division of soldiers who did not take the "ant hill" that was made 8 years prior to The Hill.

Note: Lumet also deals with the repercussions of those who escape justice in The Fugitive Kind with Marlon Brando and his final film Before the Devil Knows You're Dead from 2007.

Lumet also made Network, which aside from the famous dialogue of the movie, is an incredibly shot movie with amazing staging of shots. I am more impressed by the scene with green desk lights when the president of the Network lays out his evil plan than any "mad as hell..." dialogue. I feel as though Lumet and Kubrick share a place in my heart with their imagery, their camera moves and the staging of their shots. However it is with Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove that the two will be linked for eternity. Unlike Catch-22 and MASH (two war comedies that came out around the same time with star studded casts, from prestigious directors), unfortunately, it seems as though only one of these films will be remembered for being seen by audiences and scholars.

While Fail Safe opens on a rather discombobulating dream sequence of a stylized bullfight, the audience is rather confused as graphics on the screen place the setting in New York City. We wake up with the protagonist in bed with his wife. Right away there is a juxtaposition with Dr. Strangelove that opens with Turgidson in the bathroom and his mistress in his bed. There is talk of the war room in Fail Safe that is much more of a control room than Kubrick's poker table (the table in his war room was covered in green felt to give it the feel of a poker table despite being shot in black and white). The President does not talk to the Russians from the War Room, but from a smaller room that almost looks like a police interrogation room.

Both movies try to over take the bombers sent on mistaken missions but only Fail Safe is able to make contact with the rogue bomber. They call the radio and have the wife of the pilot try to talk to him and the pilot believes she is an impostor trying to trick him out of his mission. This parallels the Jack Ripper phone call where he asks the RAF officer if he recognizes the sound of his voice. Both movies are rather dark in tone, beautifully shot, minimal score and they both handle the direction of atomic explosions differently but equally affective in either exerting an awkward laugh or gut punch sadness.

Dr. Bloodmoney

Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern had talked about writing a sequel to Dr. Strangelove that would have place the titular doctor in the mine shaft surrounded by women as they negotiated the close quarters of living underground, repopulating the Earth, and dealing with a former Nazi every day. Meanwhile, Philip K. Dick was writing a book placed decades after a nuclear disaster that came out the year after the movie that had a former German adviser to the President whose scientific exploits may have resulted in the disaster. Because it's from the mind of Philip K. Dick, his world has psychics and magic powers and a little bit of goofiness.

Dr. Bloodmoney lives in the post-apocalypse under an assumed name, living like a fugitive as the rest of the world blames him for the disaster. There is a psychic character that was born with birth defects but uses the powers of his mind to work with machinery even though he doesn't have arms or legs that he can adequately maneuver. It's a bit unsettling that the only physically disabled character in the book is the biggest asshole and may make himself a bigger villain than Dr. Bloodmoney by the end. Another main character is an astronaut who was marooned in orbit but combined with his charming personality, library of records and giant transmitter has become the disc jockey to the world. It's funny to realize that World War Z and Last Man on Earth both had astronaut characters marooned on space stations after the end of the world and they all find different ways to cope, and The Martian (both book and movie) also listens through the library of music left with him as he is stuck on Mars.

Although many of Philip K. Dick's books have been adapted into movies and TV shows, only Blade Runner was in production during his lifetime. Perhaps Dick's greatest book, Ubik, has not been adapted into a movie and Dr. Bloodmoney definitely has not been adapted and in the case of the latter, it's probably for the better. Dr. Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After the Bomb, was named on the recommendation of the editor to capitalize off Dr. Strangelove and that IP confusion might have kept its rights from being allowed into becoming a movie and it's all for the better that it probably won't hit our screens. You never know, Amazon's Electric Dreams based on Dick's writings seems like it might have a second season.

We'll meet again.

Letterboxd Review of Dr. Strangelove

Movie of the Month List

Next Month: Sunshine (2007) in honor of the upcoming First Man release. I'll also be touching on other realism based and biographical space movies like Apollo 13, Gravity, The Martian, Contact, Hidden Figures, Interstellar and more, I'm sure.

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