Dr Strangelove: Or Why You Need To See This Film Again Immediately

In January 1964 Stanley Kubrick unleashed DR STRANGELOVE into the world just months after the assassination of JFK. In fact the first test screening of the film was scheduled the day the assassination took place. Little more than 12 months had passed since the United States faced the Cuban missile crisis, an event that brought home the reality of nuclear war to families everywhere. Suffice to say the psychological climate of the country was fragile to say the least.
STRANGELOVE began its life as a serious drama based on the novel RED ALERT by Peter George. As Kubrick undertook his trademark assiduous research he slowly realised that the material was too absurd to be taken seriously.

“As I tried to build the detail for a scene I found myself tossing away what seemed to me to be very truthful insights because I was afraid the audience would laugh. After a few weeks of this I realized that these incongruous bits of reality were closer to the truth than anything else I was able to imagine. After all, what could be more absurd than the very idea of two mega-powers willing to wipe out all human life because of an accident, spiced up by political differences that will seem as meaningless to people a hundred years from now as the theological conflicts of the Middle Ages appear to us today?
And it was at this point I decided to treat the story as a nightmare comedy. Following this approach, I found it never interfered with presenting well-reasoned arguments. In culling the incongruous, it seemed to me to be less stylized and more realistic than any so-called serious, realistic treatment, which in fact is more stylized than life itself by its careful exclusion of the banal, the absurd, and the incongruous. In the context of impending world destruction, hypocrisy, misunderstanding, lechery, paranoia, ambition, euphemism, patriotism, heroism, and even reasonableness can evoke a grisly laugh."
Stanley Kubrick
After an initial draft Kubrick quickly realised where the tone of the project lay and brought in satirist Terry Southern (a close friend of Lenny Bruce) to inject some comedy into the work. Southern was known to Kubrick by his brilliant 1959 novel THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN - a sharply funny story that followers a billionaire around as he spends all his money on elaborate practical jokes - which interestingly enough was adapted for film in 1969 by Southern with pre-Monty Python stars John Cleese and Graham Chapman and starring Peter Sellers (track it down if you can, it's a great example of freewheeling 60s cinema and co-stars an awkward Ringo Starr).
As the project progressed Kubrick discovered another film with similar subject matter was also in production. FAIL SAFE, a serious prestige drama from Sydney Lumet starring Henry Fonda, reportedly was based on a different book but had a very similar narrative. Kubrick became concerned that if that film came out before his own it may effect ticket sales so he embarked upon a law-suit asserting that the novel FAIL SAFE was a plagiarisation of his STRANGELOVE source material, RED ALERT. His only real intention was to delay the film's release and in that he succeeded, beating FAIL SAFE to the box office by 10 months.
While DR STRANGELOVE was not by any means the first case of black comedy in cinema (Chaplin's MONSIEUR VERDOUX in 1947 or ARSENIC AND OLD LACE in 1944 are some great examples of early black comedy) it towers as a significant achievement of not only timing (arriving at the peak of Cold War paranoia) but also scope. Climaxing with the entire destruction of the planet is undeniably one of the most provocative endings in cinema history and framing that within the context of a comedy... well, that degree of boldness was unparalleled at the time.
Not only is the film, as one would expect, formally masterful but narratively Kubrick plays some truly ground breaking games. The film operates on 3 independent levels which are each pitched with a uniquely contrasting tone.
1: Mandrake and Ripper battle wits in his office as Sterling Hayden offers up his absurdly brilliant reasoning to why he is starting a nuclear war (absolute trivia note: the acronym POE - Purity Of Essence, is referenced in several films from the last 30 years. Most memorably for me noted in graffiti on a toilet wall in the Coen Bros RAISING ARIZONA and in a hugely meta move this reference was itself referenced in HAROLD AND KUMAR GO TO GUANTANOMO BAY. We're down the rabbit hole people!).
2 : The war room shows us how the government & military response to the possibility of nuclear war could play out and it also features the film's most supremely comedic sequences including the legendary phone conversation between the US and Russian presidents which, while profoundly hilarious, is one of the most genuine moments in the entire film. How else could that conversation have played out?
3: The bomber sequences shown us the chain of events that lead to the dropping of the bomb. These bomber scenes are often the more maligned moments of the film as they are superficially more functional than anything else but on a recent viewing I found these sequences deeply fascinating. Kubrick is experimenting with audience allegiances here in some truly accomplished ways. The 'good old boy' characteristics of the pilots, emphasised by Slim Pickens' wonderful show as Major Kong, puts the audience into quite a conflicted position as the film begins to climax. We like these guys. They are good men, dedicated to their job and ultimately willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of their country. Kubrick wrings out every moment of suspense in these final scenes as they overcome all obstacles to get to their target. The viewer is placed into a fascinating dual position as we oscillate between hoping they don't achieve their goal but also wanting them to overcome all odds. As Major Kong enters the belly of the beast to manually unlock the bomb bay doors, we want him to succeed, not because we yearn for the destruction of the earth but because Kubrick has simply cleverly allied us with these likeable characters. The tension in these final stretches of DR STRANGELOVE is multi-layed & extremely sophisticated and as Kubrick intercuts this with the increasingly bizarre actions of those in the war room the film reaches an almost hysterical crescendo that allows him to get away with an amazing final iconic shot.
Devotees of Kubrick trivia will already know of DR STRANGELOVE's infamous alternate ending that was completely shot and assembled before being removed at some point either before or during the test screening process.
Originally the film was to end with a giant pie fight in the war room. Traces of the build up to this moment can still be seen in the final cut (note the conspicuously pie-filled table in the war room). In the original ending as the Russian ambassador leaves the group to take photographs from his concealed camera General Turgidson catches him for the second time. On this occasion their jostling devolves into a giant pie-fight between all present in the war room. The scene reportedly ended with a shot of the president and the Russian ambassador covered in white cream making pie-castles like little children.
Why and when this ending was removed is still up for debate. Kubrick himself stated the shift to such overt farce wasn't in sync with the tone of the rest of the film. Terry Southern later claimed the footage itself was unusable as everyone participating in the pie fight were laughing and having a good old time. Most interestingly of all was editor Anthony Harvey's claim that the scene was taken out at Columbia Pictures request. Apparently there was a moment in the pie-fight where the president takes a pie in the face. General Turgidson loudly exclaimed, "Gentlemen! Our gallant young president has been struck down in his prime!". The studio were afraid it was simply too soon after the assassination of JFK to have a joke such as this and asked for the removal. Whatever the reason behind the change it is clear that it was for the best. As it stands DR STRANGELOVE has one of the most pitch-perfect, memorable endings to a film in cinema history.
I could go on and on about little bits of trivia from the amazingly influential sets by Ken Adams (the majesty of the war room ironically went on to influence the design of actual presidential war rooms) to the numerous sexual references hidden within the narrative (most notably almost all the character's names have a double entendre function and I don't need to mention the underlying symbolism within the opening credits do I?).
DR STRANGELOVE  is one of the greatest films ever made (and it is refreshing to be able to make a statement like that on a blog without any worry of hyperbole), easily in my personal top ten favorite films, an hilariously genre defining black comedy, arguably the best thing Peter Sellers ever did (controversial comment?), and another notch in the career of one of the greatest filmmakers to ever live (Kubrick never made a bad film - I'm willing to argue this point and only uber cinephiles that want to drop FEAR AND DESIRE have an argument). It's an eminently rewatchable film and the new 4K restoration showing at the Astor is possibly the most gorgeous it has ever been. Vital viewing for any human being. Get to this special season now!
Showing from Monday November 28 to Sunday December 4
More details are here: http://www.astor-theatre.com/