Every time you see a great film, you find new things in it. Viewing Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove" for perhaps the 10th time, I discovered what George C. Scott does with his face. His performance is the funniest thing in the movie--better even than the inspired triple performance by Peter Sellers or the nutjob general played by Sterling Hayden--but this time I found myself paying special attention to the tics and twitches, the grimaces and eyebrow archings, the sardonic smiles and gum-chewing, and I enjoyed the way Scott approached the role as a duet for voice and facial expression.
That can be dangerous for an actor. Directors often ask actors to underplay closer shots, because too much facial movement translates into mugging or overacting. Billy Wilder once asked Jack Lemmon for "a little less" so many takes in a row that Lemmon finally exploded: "Whaddya want! Nothing?" Lemmon recalls that Wilder raised his eyes to heaven: "Please God!" Kubrick, whose attention to the smallest detail in every frame was obsessive, would have been aware of George C. Scott's facial gymnastics, and yet he endorsed them, and when you watch "Strangelove" you can see why.
Scott's work is hidden in plain view. His face here is so plastic and mobile it reminds you of Jerry Lewis or Jim Carrey (in completely different kinds of movies). Yet you don't consciously notice his expressions because Scott sells them with the energy and conviction of his performance. He means what he says so urgently that the expressions accompany his dialogue instead of distracting from it. Consider the scene where his character, Gen. Buck Turgidson, is informing the president that it is quite likely a B-52 bomber will be able to fly under Russian radar and deliver its payload even though the entire Soviet air force knows where the plane is headed. "He can barrel in that baby so low!" Scott says, with his arms spread wide like wings, and his head shaking in admiration at how good his pilots are--so good one of them is about to bring an end to civilization.
Another actor, waving his arms around, might look absurd. Scott embodies the body language so completely that it simply plays as drama (and comedy). In another scene, scurrying around the War Room, he slips, falls to a knee, rights himself, and carries on. Kubrick the perfectionist left the unplanned slip in the film, because Scott made it seem convincing, and not an accident.
"Dr. Strangelove" (1964) is filled with great comic performances, and just as well, because there's so little else in the movie apart from faces, bodies and words. Kubrick shot it on four principal locations (an office, the perimeter of an Air Force base, the "War Room," and the interior of a B-52 bomber). His special effects are competent but not dazzling (we are obviously looking at model planes over Russia). The War Room, one of the most memorable of movie interiors, was created by Ken Adam out of a circular desk, a ring of lights, some back-projected maps, and darkness. The headquarters of Gen. Jack D. Ripper, the haywire Air Force general, is just a room with some office furniture in it.
Yet out of these rudimentary physical props and a brilliant screenplay (which Kubrick and Terry Southern based on a novel by Peter George), Kubrick made what is arguably the best political satire of the century, a film that pulled the rug out from under the Cold War by arguing that if a "nuclear deterrent" destroys all life on Earth, it is hard to say exactly what it has deterred.
"Dr. Strangelove's" humor is generated by a basic comic principle: People trying to be funny are never as funny as people trying to be serious and failing. The laughs have to seem forced on unwilling characters by the logic of events. A man wearing a funny hat is not funny. But a man who doesn't know he's wearing a funny hat ... ah, now you've got something.
The characters in "Dr. Strangelove'' do not know their hats are funny. The film begins with Gen. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) fondling a phallic cigar while launching an unauthorized nuclear strike against Russia. He has become convinced that the commies are poisoning "the purity and essence of our natural fluids" by adding fluoride to the water supply. (Younger viewers may not know that in the 1950s this was a widespread belief.) Ripper's nuclear strike, his cigar technique and his concern for his "precious bodily fluids" are so entwined that they inspire unmistakable masturbatory associations.
The only man standing between Ripper and nuclear holocaust is a British liaison, Group Captain Mandrake (Sellers), who listens with disbelief to Rippers' rantings. Meanwhile, Ripper's coded message goes out to airborne B-52s to launch an attack against Russia. A horrified President Muffley (Sellers again) convenes his advisers in the War Room and is informed by Turgidson, bit by reluctant bit, of the enormity of the situation: The bombers are on the way, they cannot be recalled, Gen. Ripper cannot be reached, and so on. Eventually, Muffley calls the Russian premiere to confess everything ("Dimitri, we have a little problem ... ").
Other major players include the sinister strategist Dr. Strangelove (Sellers a third time), a character whose German accent now evokes Henry Kissinger, although in 1964 nuclear think-tanker Herman Kahn was the likely target. Strangelove's black-gloved right hand is an unruly weapon with a will of its own, springing into Nazi salutes and trying to throttle Strangelove to death. Action in the War Room and on the Air Force base is intercut with the B-52 cockpit, ruled by Major T.J. "King" Kong (Slim Pickens); when he's told by his radio man that the order to attack has come through, he tells them, "No horsin' around on the airplane!"
Major Kong was intended to be Sellers' fourth role, but he was uncertain about the cowboy accent. Pickens, a character actor from westerns, was brought in by Kubrick, who reportedly didn't tell him the film was a comedy. Pickens' patriotic speeches to his crew (and his promises of promotion and medals) are counterpoint to the desperate American efforts to recall the flight.
I've always thought the movie ends on an unsure note. After the first nuclear blast, Kubrick cuts back to the War Room, where Strangelove muses that deep mines could be used to shelter survivors, whose descendants could return to the surface in 90 years (Turgidson is intrigued by the 10-to-1 ratio of women to men). Then the film abruptly ends in its famous montage of many mushroom clouds, while Vera Lynn sings "We'll Meet Again."
It seems to me there should be no more dialogue after the first blast; Strangelove's survival strategy could be moved up to just before Slim Pickens' famous bareback ride to oblivion. I realize there would be a time lapse while Russian missiles responded to the attack, but I think the film would be more effective if the original blast brought an end to all further story developments. (Kubrick originally planned to end the film with a pie fight, and a table laden with pies can be seen in the background of the War Room, but he wisely realized that his purpose was satire, not slapstick.)
"Dr. Strangelove" and "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968) are Kubrick's masterpieces. The two films share a common theme: Man designs machinery that functions with perfect logic to bring about a disastrous outcome. The U.S. nuclear deterrent and the Russian "doomsday machine" function exactly as they are intended, and destroy life on earth. The computer HAL 9000 serves the space mission by attacking the astronauts.
Stanley Kubrick himself was a perfectionist who went to obsessive lengths in order to get everything in his films to work just right. He owned his own cameras and sound and editing equipment. He often made dozens of takes of the same shot. He was known to telephone projectionists to complain about out-of-focus screenings. Are his two best films a nudge in his own ribs?