In one of the funniest scenes of all time, the President calls the Russian Premier, Yuri, to discuss what is going on and attempt to prevent a retaliatory attack. While the President is trying to call Yuri’s office, the Russian ambassador suggests a second number to try, as the Premier “is also a man.” Once they get a hold of Yuri, in a rare move for Kubrick, Sellers improvises most of his lines. The two leaders have a conversation about the impending attack that ends with the two men arguing over who is more sorry about the events. The conversation goes out of its way to make fun of the Premier and make him seem petty and childish, to hilarious effect. This is especially apparent when the ambassador reveals that the Russians have created a “Doomsday Machine,” although they haven’t announced it yet because the Premier likes surprises.
While the film likes to poke fun at Soviet incompetence, the over-the-top American patriotism and aggression is also on display. General Turgidson (George C. Scott) originally freaks out upon hearing that the President invited the Russian ambassador into the War Room, which contains all of the military plans and has large maps with troop positions. “He’ll see everything,” the General exclaims. “He—he’ll see the big board!” He repeatedly attacks Russian intelligence and often gets swept up in American pride, regardless of how inappropriate it may be. Constant referencing to the gap between American and Soviet war materials is another hilarious running gag in the film. God forbid either side has a comparable surplus of materials over the other—mineshafts and Doomsday Machine, for example—regardless of how ridiculous the materials are. Along with Turgidson, Ripper, the general who gives the orders to attack, is the perfect product of American propaganda to scare the people away from communism. He possesses, simultaneously, an intense hatred of communism and a strong belief in American superiority while also having a just as intense a fear of the communists. This mix of feelings allow him to confident in leading troops into battle while at the same time convincing him that war is a justifiable way to prevent the destruction of the United States.
The titular character, also played by Peter Sellers, is a former Nazi scientist confined to a wheel chair who has no control over his right arm. Between losing control of his hand and calling the President “Mein Fuhrer” Dr. Strangelove is able to explain the Doomsday Machine and formulate a plan to continue humanity by taking a select group into a deep mine shaft to wait out the radiation. Sellers is one of Kubrick’s favorite actors (he also starred in Lolita) for good reason; he is as brilliant as he is funny. He manages to play three separate roles in this film and brings a different character to each of them while still maintaining his wit.
As always, the film depicts Kubrick’s mastery of film direction. He is able to elicit amazing performances from all of his actors; Sellers was nominated for an Academy Award for his roles. Kubrick restrains Sellers from going too farcical and gets Scott to hilariously overact his role. With such a small budget, the film lacks the spectacular special effects of some of his later work, but I think that the simple effects are more effective at giving the film an air of satire. The budget also forced the film to be shot in black and white, though now it seems that the color of the film mimics the black and white nature of the US-Soviet Cold War relations. Although often overshadowed by masterpieces Kubrick directs later in his career, I think this may be my favorite of all his films. It’s sharp and hilarious without sacrificing substance or intelligence.
Length: 95 minutes