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Dr. Strangelove (1964)

by on 2011/04/18

What do peace on Earth, “preversions”, and cobalt thorium G have in common? Damned if I know, but they all appear in Dr. Strangelove, and are probably equally fictional, as far as I can tell. The strangest thing of all may be that they actually seem real, as real as the cinema verite this comedy resembles.

Three distinct threads only tenuously connect in this cold war satire of the early 1960s. In one, visiting British officer Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers of 1966’s Casino Royale) attempts to deal with the delusional antics of General Jack D. Ripper (Asphalt Jungle’s Sterling Hayden) on an American military base.

In another strand, the President of the United States (Being There’s Peter Sellers) is caught in a multi-directional tug-of-war between another general (George C. Scott), a Soviet ambassador (Peter Bull), the Soviet Premier, Dimitri Kisov, and a former Nazi advisor, Dr. Strangelove (The Pink Panther’s Peter Sellers).

Finally, a distinctly non-Sellers sub-cast (including James Earl Jones, Slim Pickens, and Shane Rimmer) populates an American aircraft en route to drop a nuclear strike against Communist era Russia. These scenes struck me as an inverse Apollo 13. An isolated group must overcome various obstacles in order to achieve their goal . . . in this case, ironically, an undesirable one.

Overall, my strongest reaction was of never suspecting the film was a comedy until at least half an hour in. At that point, one general (Ripper) makes an incongruous speech on “precious bodily fluids”. And I might have stayed ignorant even longer, thinking he was just acting as befit his eccentric name.

Comic signifiers slowly creep in as the plot begins to wind down. Military billboards advertise “Peace is our Business”. The president warns his guests not to fight in the war room. His tone becomes overtly pedantic when speaking on the phone. With a few exceptions, however, the humour is oddly off. It’s the nervous giggling of dread, the desperate absurdity of a defense mechanism.

In fact, by the time Sellers delivers his home stretch over-the-topisms as the titular Dr. Strangelove, we’ve become acclimated to a slower, unfunnier tone. Suddenly he comes across as outrageous, bizarre, and even out-of-place. I have no doubt the cinephile set will champion the performance as a brilliant comment on something or other, and yet it just didn’t move me to laughter, for all of his effort.

Otherwise, I found Dr. Strangelove highly intriguing and moderately entertaining. The story’s delivered in a way that recalls a joke from Life of Brian, an emergency which “calls for immediate discussion.” I’m glad to have seen its cautionary tale of paranoia, extremism, and other human foibles. But, where funny is concerned, brace for more “hmm” than “ha ha”.

* * * *

Rated PG

93 minutes

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