Dr. Strangelove

Austin Chronicle

DIRECTED BY: Stanley Kubrick

REVIEWED: 08-31-98

Since 1987's Full Metal Jacket, we've heard virtually nothing from Stanley Kubrick. The comparisons between Adrian Lyne's new Lolita and Kubrick's 1962 adaptation of the novel and a rumored release date for Kubrick's newest psychosexual thriller, Eyes Wide Shut (early 1999) has the director back in the news, however. Kubrick is best known for movies of psychological terror (The Shining, 2001: A Space Odyssey) and for war pictures that illustrate the tragedy and horror of battle (Full Metal Jacket, Paths of Glory). All of these films (go ahead, throw in Spartacus for good measure) are considered to be among the absolute best in their genres. His comedies (Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Lolita) take a look at his lighter subjects: nuclear devastation, gang rape, and pedophilia.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is one of the funniest and most poignant political satires ever made. General Jack D. Ripper (Hayden) launches a bomber wing to drop nuclear weapons on the U.S.S.R. because he can no longer tolerate the Communist plot to "sap and impurify all our precious bodily fluids." When President Merkin Muffley (Sellers) finds out, he calls the Russian Premier ("He went and did a funny thing, Dmitri...") and learns that the U.S.S.R. has a Doomsday Device, one that will destroy all life on Earth should they ever be struck by a nuclear attack. The action cuts between the U.S. War Room, Gen. Ripper's headquarters, and a bomber piloted by Major T. J. "King" Kong (Pickens), who is determined to drop his payload. While 2001 deals largely with machines controlling mankind, Dr. Strangelove looks at the equally frightening idea of men being in control of machines. For a Sixties cold war comedy, the film remains remarkably undated in its humor, and many scenes are cinematic classics, like the famous closing shot of Slim Pickens shouting "Yee-haw!" and waving his cowboy hat as he rides a nuclear bomb to the earth. And while there are several fine performances, Peter Sellers dominates the film in three different parts with true comic genius.



Madness takes control: Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove

Dr. Strangelove also featured what would become a Kubrick trademark: strikingly ironic uses of music, and if you've seen A Clockwork Orange you'll never hear "Singing in the Rain" or Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in quite the same way again. Set in the near future, A Clockwork Orange is an extremely disturbing meditation on the violent nature of man. That doesn't sound much like the description of a comedy, but it's precisely the fact that the movie is so funny that makes it so disturbing. We spend the first 30 minutes of the film witnessing beatings, cripplings, gang fights, terrorism, and gang rape, all for the amusement of Alex DeLarge (McDowell) and his band of "droogs." Later betrayed by his friends and arrested, he volunteers for an experimental treatment in behavior modification that leaves him retching on his hands and feet at the slightest thought of violence. Alex is released as a reformed, healthy member of society, but also a victim of his past and something less than human. Early on, close hand-held camera shots and an intense pace draw the audience into Alex's addiction and attraction to violence and power. As a witness to his forced transformation we actually begin to pull for him, even though he is indisputably immoral and repugnant. This may, in fact, be the most disturbing effect of the film. Stylistically, the film is quirky and colorful, with fascinating contrasts between beauty and horror. Kubrick also stays fairly faithful to the book's odd language, a sort of Shakespeare meets Dr. Seuss.

As far as Kubrick's pantheon goes, Lolita, another adaptation of a disturbingly comic novel, is considered only a minor deity. The marketing phrase in 1962 for the film was, "How did they ever make a film like Lolita?" And when you consider the content of Vladimir Nabokov's novel of the same name, it's a genuine question. While Kubrick's film leaves out the racier parts of the novel, he does a good job of capturing the humor and conveying with subtlety a forbidden sexuality. The story concerns Humbert Humbert, a European academic (Mason) who comes to America and falls passionately in love with the 14-year-old girl at his rooming house. In order to stay close to her, he marries the girl's fawning bourgeois mother (Winters) hoping her kidneys will go out sooner than later. Fortunately for Humbert, when his new wife discovers his secret passion, the heartbroken woman runs into the street and is ploughed down by a car swerving to miss a poodle. Just when Humbert thinks the stepdaughter is all his, the mysterious Quilty (Sellers) begins to move in. Most of the humor in the movie is character-driven, Mason playing his part appropriately stiff as a board, against the girlish buoyancy of the nubile Lolita, the overbearing screeching of Charlotte and the detached mincing of Quilty, another of Sellers' most brilliant, scene-stealing roles. Much like Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange, Lolita uses humor to keep you entertained and watching, to keep you thinking and laughing while considering in yourself the darkest urges of humanity.

--Jason Zech

Capsule Reviews
Dr. Strangelove

Other Films by Stanley Kubrick
A Clockwork Orange
Eyes Wide Shut
Lolita
Paths of Glory
The Killing
The Shining

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