For those who know Dr. Strangelove well, here’s a fun experiment: Watch it with the sound off, imagining that you’ve never seen it before, and try to determine at which point you’d realize that you’re supposed to be laughing. Stanley Kubrick, collaborating on the script with Terry Southern and Peter George, deliberately warped George’s novel Red Alert (originally titled Two Hours To Doom), turning what had been a deadly serious thriller into a black comedy. Equally inspired was Kubrick’s decision to fashion the movie’s visual scheme as if nothing had been changed at all. Apart from some mugging by George C. Scott (who was famously tricked into giving a much broader performance than he wanted to) and a few especially goofy moments in the last few minutes, Dr. Strangelove looks for all the world as if it’s telling the same sober cautionary tale as does Fail-Safe, the remarkably similar movie that was released just eight months later. Only the dialogue and some new, silly character names openly express the absurdity that Kubrick and company find in the doctrine of mutually assured destruction.
Granted, the presence of Peter Sellers in three separate roles is a bit of a giveaway. Of the three, Dr. Strangelove himself—a thickly accented German scientist with residual Nazi impulses—is the smallest and the least inspired, though he provides Sellers with an opportunity to inject some welcome physical humor into the heavily verbal proceedings. The actor was often funniest at his most restrained, however, and he creates two indelible vessels of neutered authority in Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake and U.S. President Merkin Muffley. Mandrake, the epitome of British civility even in moments of great stress, spends most of his time locked in a room with Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), a delusional paranoiac who sets the plot in motion by instructing the B-52 bombers under his command to drop their nuclear payloads on the Soviet Union. President Muffley, meanwhile, holds hilarious, Newhart-style phone conversations with the Russian premier, trying to determine whether humanity will be wiped out should America be unable to recall the planes. Sellers’ exasperated inflection and timing, speaking to the (reportedly very drunk) premier as one would to a petulant 6-year-old, is a thing of riotous beauty.
Again, though, you’d never guess that just from looking. The “War Room” set, designed by the great Ken Adam (who was also responsible for the early Bond films), would look right at home in a German Expressionist classic; its enormous, perfectly round table, lit by an overhanging circle a few feet above the heads of those seated at it, in no way suggests levity. Neither does the general feel of the many scenes set in a particular B-52 bomber—in part, according to legend, because Slim Pickens, playing Maj. T.J. “King” Kong (originally a fourth Sellers role), was never told that Dr. Strangelove is a comedy (though that’s hard to reconcile with his final seconds on screen). In a clever touch, Criterion’s new release of the movie houses its essays in a minireplica of the envelopes that contain “Wing Attack Plan R,” to which the film devotes a remarkable amount of relatively sober screen time. All of the technical details involved in nuclear protocol are honored here, without being turned into gags. This isn’t Buckaroo Banzai, with its document cheekily titled “Declaration Of War: The Short Form.” The situation itself is ludicrous enough.
That might be a big part of the reason why Kubrick ultimately chose to cut the slapstick ending he’d shot, in which the War Room breaks out into a gigantic pie fight. (The pies are still briefly visible at one point, as the Russian ambassador wanders around.) Its omission admittedly leaves Dr. Strangelove without any real ending at all; while Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again” playing over real-life detonation footage couldn’t be more counterintuitively perfect, the narrative proper concludes on a bizarre, somewhat mysterious note, with Strangelove suddenly rising from his wheelchair and then exclaiming, in evident surprise, “Mein Führer! I can walk!” But the pie fight’s overt, freewheeling comedy would have undermined what Kubrick so brilliantly achieves throughout the rest of the movie. Shooting Dr. Strangelove as if it were Paths Of Glory makes its ridiculous elements at once funnier and more chilling, emphasizing the Cold War’s inherent insanity. When Scott, as Gen. Buck Turgidson, does a quick midsentence pratfall, it feels dangerously disruptive, because the character’s buffoonery is otherwise rooted in utterly plausible jingoism. (His dialogue is less outrageous than half of what Trump says.) Making light of world annihilation is serious business, and Kubrick treats it as such, without sacrificing laughs. He renders Fail-Safe redundant.