Over at moviemezzanine.com there's a prodigious list of key 1960s films as chosen by all sorts of critics and editors and movie lovers. "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" is one of the favorites, alongside "Breathless," "The Apartment," "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Play Time."
Astoundingly bleak, director Stanley Kubrick's 1964 Cold War punch line remains the supreme death-cackle in modern movies, Kubrick's vision of the end. Kubrick once again finished us off in "2001"; it's just a question of which way you want to go, by way of a Star Child in ascendance or Slim Pickens plummeting from a great height.
"Dr. Strangelove" returns for a 50th anniversary theatrical engagement this week at the Music Box Theatre in a 35-millimeter print. Have you seen it lately? Have you, in fact, never seen it theatrically, or even on a smaller screen? Then you know what you must do.
Peter Sellers made two films with Kubrick, "Lolita" (1962) first, then the three roles in "Dr. Strangelove." So many great actor/director partnerships over the decades were built over time and several decades. This one was different, and astonishingly right. The telephone call between U.S. president Merkin Muffley and the Soviet premier alone establishes so many things, beyond the fact that "it's great to be fine": Mainly it's proof that Sellers understood the comic potential of Organization Men in a doomsday pickle, surrounded by insane people in a War Room fit for Goldfinger.
Sellers is not all there is here, God knows. George C. Scott's performance in "Dr. Strangelove" is so large, so aggressively scenery-munchy, it's a wonder it doesn't destroy the movie that destroys humanity.
Is this Kubrick's masterpiece? Certainly, the string of films Kubrick made between 1956 and 1968, from "The Killing" through "2001," stands as an example of a film artist more or less having his way with a half-dozen masterpieces, thank the movie gods, casting in ice a fatalistic view of the world and of humankind's inhumane impulses. ("Spartacus," begun by Anthony Mann, feels less personal and more Hollywood, but it's still a classic.) In "Dr. Strangelove" the satiric flow of the script is deliberately set against a steely, methodical rhythm. This is not screwball; it's more like Samuel Beckett writing for Mad magazine. Yet the malignant force of the film's premise is like nothing else. So many films owe so much to this film, and to these performances.
For various reasons "Dr. Strangelove" just missed the '60s Top 10 list I contributed to moviemezzanine.com. Another film from that year, "A Hard Day's Night," took its place, I suppose, which can be read as headlong energy trumping comic nihilism. Yet there's room and time for both among our perpetually endangered species, and even Kubrick would've acknowledged as much.
"Dr. Strangelove" - 4 stars
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1:43
Opens: Friday at the Music Box Theatre