Review: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Dr._StrangeloveHow to speak of Dr. Strangelove? To clarify I mean the film and not the character. First and foremost, it’s one of those films that has so much significance, because of the era it came out of and for the way it represents that time and space. It’s the defining film about the Cold War, much in the same way All the President’s Men is identified with Watergate and the sentiments at the time.

This film is wickedly funny, and yet I never found myself laughing out loud. There was more often a smirk slowly forming on my face. This film is a landmark and an important piece of cinema and yet I could never say I have a passionate love for it. What sets it apart is the way that Kubrick is able to tackle the paranoia at the time.

His plot is utterly ridiculous and absurd and yet in anything, there is always a sliver of truth that seems all too real. A film throwing around talk of nuclear war and doomsday devices is rather bleak and so I suppose Dr. Strangelove is a type of morbid humor. Certainly a black, satirical comedy.

Kubrick’s story is split into three sections: There the B-52 bomber where the crew including Slim Pickens and a young James Earl Jones patrol the skies until they get the unmistakable order to proceed with “Plan R” which begins an attack on Russia. Slim Pickens is an inspired piece of casting with his iconic southern drawl because he plays everything straight, but you cannot help find it funny. He sticks out like a sore thumb in the cockpit and then there’s, of course, his mounting the bucking bomb, but that comes later…

The order was given on the command of a General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) after he ordered his aide British officer Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers) to put their base on high alert. All this came about because of Ripper’s fears about fluoridation and bodily fluids. He’s sure the Commies have infiltrated and so he prepares to decimate them. He bypasses the president, all communication is cut off, and he locks himself and Mandrake up in his office. As far as he’s concerned the deed is done. He can just go on chomping on his cigar while comforting Mandrake. Because there’s no way that he would ever disclose the three-letter code so his aide can warn the Pentagon.

The final setting of the film takes place in the legendary war room which feels rather like a velodrome with a table in the center. There the highest officials of the nation gather round to try and figure out what to do about this national crisis. General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) advises the president on what to do about the situation while chewing away at a wad of gum. President Merkin Muffley (Sellers once more), is far from pleased and he even sends a call over “the hotline,” to the Russian Premier. He shares his deep regrets about the situation with Dimitri and it gives Seller a stage on which to work his deadpan humor. Muffley also tries to maintain order after Turgidson and the Russian Ambassador get in a scuffle (Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!).

Meanwhile, a battle ensues at Ripper’s base as the apt billboard inscribed “Peace is our Program” sits in the background. This is an utterly ludicrous firefight and it ends with an appearance by Keenan Wynn ready to take Mandrake and Ripper captive. However, the general has already kicked the bucket and Mandrake attempts to use a payphone to reach the Pentagon.

But the best advice the president gets comes from Nazi-defector Dr. Strangelove (Sellers number three), who is restricted to a wheelchair and still has trouble stifling his “Heil Hitler” and “Mein Fuhrer.” His final solution is to gather a few hundred people in mine shafts underground, away from the radiation, where they can procreate. The female to male ratio optimally would be 10:1 and that starts Turgidson salivating. We don’t quite know how it ends, but Kubrick ends with the iconic juxtaposition of nuclear bombs exploding as “We’ll Meet Again” wafts through the air. It’s the last brilliant piece of humor.

Dr. Strangelove is a great film in part because of its performances beginning with Seller. We’re used to his lovable buffoon Inspector Clouseau and yet he’s quite different here. Each character is starkly different in fact, but each one is played straight with their assorted quirks laid out for us.  Slim Pickens, a man also known for his comedic sidekick roles is playing it straight which is also funny in itself.

Finally, George C. Scott is one of the stars that we would label a dramatic actor and yet this is probably the most over the top and odd performance of his career. It’s wonderfully vibrant in all respects from the gesticulation of his body to his facial expressions.

Everything’s an odd mix where hysteria with global consequence is matter-of-fact. There’s no fighting in war rooms. There are Cold Wars and Hotlines. Nazi Doctors advise the president and Russian ambassadors are tackled to the ground. It’s pointing to the inconsistencies in this world that we live in. It’s a satire about the absurdity of nuclear deterrence in an age where that was in vogue.

4.5/5 Stars

Kiss me Deadly (1955)

kissmedeadly1Set in L.A., the film stars Ralph Meeker as the callous and often corrupt P.I. Mike Hammer, adapted from the Mickey Spillane novels. One night while driving, Hammer picks up a frightened woman who begs him to remember her. They are forced off the road by thugs and the girl is eventually killed. Hammer wakes up in the hospital to his secretary girlfriend Velda (Maxime Cooper). He makes it his priority to find out what the mysterious woman was talking about. He meets up with opposition and a femme fatale, but Hammer keeps on going using strong-armed tactics. He finally tracks down a mysterious whats-it but then discovers that Velda was kidnapped. In the final confrontation, he finally learns who he was looking for and he finds out the consequences of the Pandora’s box in the hands of a deadly female.

Out of most of the prominent works in the canon, Kiss Me Deadly is probably the pulpiest of L.A. Noir. The images are rather like a historical time capsule of 1950’s Los Angeles with locations on Wilshire Blvd., Sunset Blvd, and even near Angels Flight. It has crisp black and white cinematography with many noticeably low angles underlying the sleekness, but also the paranoia wrapped up in this story. It arguably has the queerest cold open and ending of any noir, which I cannot help but remember.

kissmedeadly2Ralph Meeker plays’s Mickey Spillane’s P.I. Mike Hammer to a tee. His husky voice perfectly fits the bravado of Hammer, a misogynistic brute prone to coercive action. Out of all the private gumshoes we’ve met, Hammer is probably the lowest — he’s a real scuzzball.

 Hammer throws women around like playthings and even his girl Velda has a double purpose. Yes, she is a lover, but she also makes a keen asset for business. As a P.I. specializing in divorce cases and marital problems, he’s not below giving business a little help. Velda willingly works on the husbands for him and he’s not above playing around with their wives. It’s a cozy little set-up.

kissmedeadly8That’s Hammer’s level and so when he gets caught up in the story of the mysterious girl Christina (Cloris Leachman), he has no idea what he gotten himself into. It’s a lot bigger than him and when the authorities throw around words like the Manhattan Project, Los Alamos, and Trinity he finally understands what its all about, but not really. In essence, Kiss Me Deadly is the quintessential film of paranoia in the Cold War nuclear age. We have a MacGuffin in the form of the mysterious Whats-it, but aside from that, we get few answers. Only a few deaths and some mighty kissmedeadly4destruction.

Kiss Me Deadly has some great characters aside from Hammer and Velma. The thugs are played by the perpetually cross-eyed Jack Elam and the glowering Jack Lambert which turns out to be great casting. Also, the lively Greek-American Nick (Nick Dennis) is a great deal of fun with his enthusiasm and a lot of “Vavavoom!”

It’s an interesting dilemma because I have never loved Kiss Me Deadly, but director Robert Aldrich developed a film that is so persistently interesting. It was a film that was supposed to ruin young viewers for its moral depravity, sensuality and who knows what else. This film literally screams “Remember Me” and honestly I will not be forgetting about it anytime soon.

3.5/5 Stars

Christina: You have only one real lasting love.

Hammer: Now who could that be?

Christina: You. You’re one of those self-indulgent males who thinks about nothing but his clothes, his car, himself. Bet you do push-ups every morning just to keep your belly hard. 

Pickup on South Street (1953)

bf34b-pickuponsouthstreetFrom American cult film director Samuel Fuller comes a brief, yet potent film-noir laced with communism, pickpocketing, and a lot of shady business on the streets of New York.
Grifter Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) is just recently out of the can, and he is back on the streets up to his old tricks again swiping wallets. His victim this time around is a pretty young dame named Candy (Jean Peters) who has a mission of her own to drop off a package. Neither of them knows quite what they have gotten into and to start off with, nothing happens. What exactly has Skip stumbled upon? The answer includes microfilm, spies, and the Commies. All of a sudden things are hot, as McCoy tries to cut a deal with the Reds, and Candy tries to recover the film she unknowingly lost. Candy gets caught in the middle of her boyfriend who is sided with Communists and Skip who wants to cash in on his good fortune. Between Skip and Candy begins a wild and passionate love affair that seems destined for disaster. Both have their own agendas, but it is ultimately Candy who drops hers because of her new found affection. McCoy is callous at first but he comes around, in the end, leaving this noir on a surprisingly positive note.
Thelma Ritter was usually colorful in her many screen appearances and she has another memorable turn as the wheeler-dealer Moe Williams in this film. However, Moe does not just deal ties and secrets; she is a woman with a conscience and a touch of good old-fashioned patriotism. In her own simple way, she is a hero whether people know it or not.
Widmark played a similar conman in Night and the City (1950), but this time around things worked out a little differently for his character. The pickpocket sequences were perhaps less elaborate but still similarly intricate to Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959). It is possible that he got some of his inspiration from Fuller’s work here.
This is a real communist era thriller that Fuller injects with passion, grit, and some unadulterated violence. It is not a pretty film necessarily, but that is not what Fuller is going for, and he never does. Instead, as a former journalist, he reveals to his audience the nitty-gritty of South Street up close and personal. He succeeds with flying colors in delivering a first rate scoop of uncompromising pulp.
4/5 Stars

Dr. Strangelove… (1964)

17d85-drstrangelove1sheet

Living up to its name, this satire directed by Stanley Kubrick is quite peculiar to say the  least. The nation is on the edge of nuclear war because of a lunatic general (Sterling Hayden) who made the decision to override the authority of the president (Peter Sellers). Tempers flare in the war room as the leaders decide what to do. Will the Doomsday device be unleashed as Dr. Strangelove (Sellers again) supposes or will the bomb be stopped in time? One of the obvious highlights of this film would have to be Peter Seller’s performances as three distinct characters. George C. Scott also delivers a very respectable performance as a general advising the president. Then, there is Slim Pickens who is often remembered for the famous bomb riding scene. This film is good but in my mind it is not great. However, it does depict an era of tremendous fear brought on by the Cold War, thus making it historically important.

4.5/5 Stars

Kiss Me Deadly (1955) – Film-Noir

Set in L.A., the film stars Ralph Meeker as the callous and often corrupt PI Mike Hammer, adapted from the Mickey Spillane novels. One night while driving, Hammer picks up a frightened woman who begs him to remember her. They are forced off the road by thugs and the girl is eventually killed. Hammer wakes up in the hospital to his secretary girlfriend Velda. He makes it his priority to find out what the mysterious woman was talking about. He meets up with opposition and a femme fatale, but Hammer keeps on going using strong-armed tactics. He finally tracks down a mysterious whats-it but then discovers that Velda was kidnapped. In the final confrontation he finally learns who he was looking for and he finds out the consequences of the Pandora’s box and a deadly female. This film was unique film-noir with interesting cinematography and a rather bizarre conclusion.

3.5/5 Stars