'Dr. Strangelove': THR's 1964 Review
On Jan. 29, 1964, Columbia unveiled Stanley Kubrick's nuclear satire Dr. Strangelove in theaters. The film went on to earn four Oscar nominations at the 37th Academy Awards, including in the best picture category. The Hollywood Reporter's original review, headlined "'Strangelove' Enthralling, Provocative Attraction," is below.
Baleful and brilliant, Dr. Strangelove; Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, will outrage a predictable percentage of the population and enthrall an even greater percentage. Candid and Candide-an, beneath its free-form burlesque of some of the most cherished contemporary cliches, Stanley Kubrick's creation makes visual the underlying anxiety that today stirs uneasily in most of the world's population. The Columbia release is concerned with that dread probability, an "accident" triggering the Bomb. It is so funny because it is so true. It should be a huge success.
Based on a book, Red Alert, by Peter George, the screenplay is by Kubrick, George and Terry Southern. It tells of an American general who sends his bombers winging off to Russia with the big bombs, setting in motion irrevocable events that even the President cannot recall. The film begins with the bombers on their way, its development details the futile efforts to halt them, and ends with the bombs going off. They have been dropped on a Russian "defense" mechanism — unknown to the Americans — that is known as the "Doomsday" device. It will render the Earth uninhabitable for about 100 years.
Dr. Strangelove is not an assault on American nuclear policy; it is an aghast look at the entire world, a world in which the demoniacal word "overkill" is accepted as a logical point of discussion. Sterling Hayden plays the general who orders the attack, perfectly sensible from his point of view since the Russians are responsible for fluoridation of water resulting in impurity of bodily fluids, the first step in destruction of the American Way of Way Life. Keenan Wynn, another high Army officer, is vigilant against "pree-verts," although he seems a little dim about what identifies "pree-verts." He has chosen them as his symbol of the enemy. George C. Scott, the commanding Air Force general, is just as mad, but he is more formidable in his madness; it is undistinguishable from the general insanity of our time. Kubrick does not assign the insanity of nuclear fever only to one side. The Russians are equally delirious. After the world has been triggered for oblivion, the Russian ambassador is seen busily, furtively photographing American "secrets," reflex actions with no relation to realities.
Peter Sellers plays three roles, a British liaison officer to Hayden, the American President and a German scientist. All are individual, different creations of astonishing conviction. In the first he is a Blimp-ish but basically sane fellow. As the President, he is a man of authority but so weighted with intellectual second thoughts he is unable to move. In the last he is a demented survivor of one crazy system which lingers in his memory in a right arm which occasionally jerks out of control and into the Nazi salute. All of these characters are shatteringly funny and, on reflection, quite frighteningly real.
Kubrick's success with Dr. Strangelove is based on his knowledge that, no matter how good your story, nobody is going to listen unless it is well told. Kubrick also appreciates that a serious point may be far more devastatingly made with humor than earnestness. Voltaire survives, while others are forgotten. Kubrick tilts the world a few degrees, aims at it a clear, high-power lens, and compresses all the inanities of our time. He stretches no points, he just picks them out and puts them together. He tells his story with speed but with significant detail and with sufficient time on important sequences. Detail is superb and dialogue gleams with bright gems of inconsequence, designed to shock, amuse and keep wary the observer. Only one objection: "funny" names are very low comedy and not in keeping with the otherwise high tone of the production.
Slim Pickens has a big and important role, the commanding officer of the bomber that gets through to Russia. In a final fillip of dementia, he rides one of the bombs right down to the target. He is excellent. Peter Bull is a personification of suspicion as the Russian envoy. Tracy Reed, the only female in the cast, has a wonderful scene early in the film which she handles very well. Others important and helpful include James Earl Jones, Jack Creley, Frank Berry, Glenn Beck, Shane Rimmer and Paul Tamarin.
Gilbert Taylor's photography concentrates on black-and-white realism and is an important asset in making sure the subtle story and its elusive detail are caught. Laurie Johnson's music is a major aid to the satirical tone. It is good because it does not try to be funny on its own, but is played straight and only becomes funny when contrasted with the action on film. There is an important difference that is not always seen. Ken Adam's production design is fine. Anthony Harvey's editing keeps the story taut.
Kubrick has shown before that he is a director of rare gifts. Dr. Strangelove — the name, incidentally, of the Nazi scientist — brings them into full realization. — James Powers, originally published on Jan. 15, 1964