AN UNBLINKING SATIRE executed virtually to perfection, ‘Dr. Strangelove’ walks a very delicate line between parody and drama with complete confidence. This bizarre, often macabre perspective may be due to the film’s origins as a drama before director Stanley Kubrick realized that the film would function more completely as a comedy. That is, his point would be taken more seriously if he presented it less seriously. Indeed, it is difficult to realistically fathom the scenarios that occur in the film without immediately pushing them away to arm’s length. But by slipping under our guard with the inherent snark of Peter Sellers’ multiple identities, George C. Scott’s frantic eyebrows, and the Geronimo enthusiasm of Slim Pickens, etc., ‘Dr. Strangelove’ is the rare film that we laugh at wryly while watching then recall later with leery discomfort. For in retrospect we have the sneaking suspicion that conversations forecasting “10 to 20 million casualties, tops,” as a good thing have taken place in complete earnest.
This line in particular comes from the vivid imagination of General Turgidson (George C. Scott), whose patent jingoism is purely stereotypical but also perfectly on point—more believable than the cowboy pilot Slim Pickens, who was barely acting at all. Scott’s performance is most easily described as ‘big’ and is the most manufactured in the film, largely in part due to Kubrick’s trick of using takes he promised Scott were only outsized “warm-ups”. In isolation, the performance is indeed hammy. But in the grander context of the film, Scott’s pouting, fidgeting, and vigorous expostulating is the zany glue that keeps the rest of this nonsense from falling apart. He is the bridge between Sellers’ three fates: the do-good stereotypically stiff upper lip British officer Mandrake; the fudgy President Muffley; and the mad eugenics specter of Dr. Strangelove. The latter character has become most well-known in pop culture, but the trifecta in total is arguably Sellers’ greatest ‘single’ work and one of cinema’s most defining performances.
Gilbert Taylor’s photography of the film is remarkably direct for a comedy—extended passages of the film could be mistaken for a drama if the dialogue were removed. The combat sequences in particular presage the entrenched, point-of-view perspective made famous in Vietnam films (e.g. Kubrick’s own ‘Full Metal Jacket’) that were soon to follow. Too, Taylor’s framing is usually well squared up and often a little below his subject, as epitomized by the almost beatific enshrinement of Gen. Jack Ripper’s head in a black box as he expounds on Soviet fluoride conspiracies. The camera assumes an almost documentarian directness, such as the static angle and then zoom on various instruments within the bomber’s cockpit, and this seriousness reflects well on the set design, which ranges from utterly mundane (Ripper’s office on base) to authentically claustrophobic (the bomber’s cockpit) to abstractly vast (the war room). This last set in particular is a masterpiece, starkly contrasted by massive flood lights emerging from some indistinct and deeply removed corner of the room, making its centerpiece table seem like the largest casino game ever put on felt.
The film does push its characters towards absurd resolutions, as Kubrick increasingly did over his career, but each step along the way is so clearly defined and the satire so straight-faced that it earns every dénouement. When Pickens rides his bomb into eternity or Mandrake is forced to feed stolen quarters into a payphone to get the essential codes to the president, it merely seems like the logical, ultimate, inevitable end. And when President Muffley laments, “You can’t fight in here! It’s the war room!” for a moment he makes utter sense.