November 2, 2012


Greetings again from the darkness. Difficult to decide if it’s more shocking that this film is almost 50 years old, or that it ever got released in the first place. No other black comedy satire on such a sensitive political issue has ever had its theatrical release right smack dab in the middle of the ongoing issue. The cold war between Russia and the US was in high gear and the Cuban Missile crisis had just occurred. In fact, President Kennedy’s assassination caused the film’s opening to be delayed.

 Stanley Kubrick only directed eleven feature length films, and ten of them can be considered classics (A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, to name a few). Dr. Strangelove is regarded as one of the greatest comedies of all-time, though it’s difficult to imagine anyone under 30 really “getting” much of the humor – unless they happen to be a history buff. The movie could come across as one big “inside joke” to those unfamiliar with the times.

 Loosely based on Peter George‘s “Red Alert” novel, Kubrick decided to take the source material and turn it into satire. He brought in Terry Southern (“The Magic Christian”) to help with the script, and then he turned the incomparable Peter Sellers loose in 3 roles (originally 4, but he broke his leg and gave up the Commander King Kong role). Stories abound with Sellers causing multiple takes and significant editing due to his ad-libbing cracking up other cast members (and even Kubrick).

 The structure of the film involved three separate, yet intertwined sequences. We see Burpelson Air Force Base Commander General Jack D Ripper (Sterling Hayden) issuing the order to Group Captain Mandrake (Sellers) to lock down the base. It turns out, Ripper has gone a bit loony and somehow issued the strike first command against Russia. Mandrake spends much of this segment trying to calmly obtain the Recall Codes from Ripper. We also meet the crew of one of the multiple B-52 bombers in route to Russia. Led by Commander “King” Kong (Slim Pickins), they are on the way to deliver two nuclear bombs. One of his crew is played by James Earl Jones in his screen debut. Lastly we go inside the War Room where President Merkin Muffley (Sellers) is meeting with his Joint Chiefs of Staff and advisors. A key player here is General Buck Turgidson (George C Scott) in full kill and be killed mode.

 There are so many interesting bits to discuss, but let’s limit to just a few. Watch the camera angles that Kubrick uses to film Hayden. He is made to look both powerful and nuts. Hayden (so great in Kubrick’s The Killing) has the voice and tough guy stance to make us believe he could start a war due to a Russian plot to pollute the “precious body fluids” of Americans. Sellers plays two roles in the War Room, but his straight man performance as the President allows George C Scott to really shine in one of his few comedic turns as an actor. Scott’s performance is somehow over the top AND right on the button (so to speak). When watching Slim Pickins in the iconic final image, keep in mind that he was a real life rodeo cowboy prior to breaking into acting.

 Obviously the character names are outlandish (Keenan Wynn plays Col. Bat Guano), but it should be noted that the character of the President was based on real life politician and Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson. The General Turgidson character is based on real life General Curtis LeMay who was infamous for his kill ’em first attitude. Also, General Ripper was based on General Thomas S Power, who was LeMay’s protégé and ultimate replacement as Joint Chief of the Air Force. It should also be noted that Tracy Reed is the only female character who appears … and yes, that is her in the Playboy magazine that Commander Kong is perusing.

There are so many classic lines and sight gags in the film that it’s challenging to keep up on the first viewing. Also, it’s been a few years since a pay phone and coke machine played such vital roles. When Kubrick killed the original pie fight ending, he added more frightening images and the poignant closing song – “We’ll Meet Again” by Vera Lynn. Director Sidney Lumet did a film version of this same basic story told in a straight-forward and thrilling manner. His Fail-Safe was released less than a year after Dr. Strangelove.

**NOTE: While it’s now common to refer to the film as “Dr. Strangelove”, the actual title is Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.  It is the longest title of any film nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.  The film received four total nominations, but it turned into the year of My Fair Lady (Best Picture), George Cukor (Director), and Rex Harrison (Actor).

watch the unusual trailer:



THE KILLING (1956) revisited

March 9, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. What a treat to see this one on the big screen, some 56 years after its release. This is famed director Stanley Kubrick‘s first real feature-length film and is a quasi-film noir near the end of that genre’s run. You undoubtedly know Kubrick’s more famous work on 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, and The Shining, among others. His amazing eye with the camera is on full display here, but this provides quite a different look from his later works.

Sterling Hayden stars as Johnny, the leader of a gang who plans to rob a racetrack of 2 million dollars. At its core, this is a traditional heist film, but it is presented in anything but a traditional manner. The non-linear timeline and constant flashbacks and flash-forwards influenced many future filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan. For the era, this was incredibly unique and a bit experimental. In fact, the studio forced Kubrick to add the narrator post-production to make it easier for the viewer to follow. The narrator is Art Gilmore, a prolific voice actor, who was heard in numerous movies, TV shows and previews.

 Support work is provided by many familiar character actors that we all recognize. Elisha Cook is best known for his work in The Maltese Falcon and Vince Edwards gained fame as TV’s “Ben Casey”. There are two actresses of note here. Marie Windsor plays the scheming, double-crossing wife/girlfriend whom Hayden’s character claims has a dollar sign right where her heart should be. Ms. Windsor also appeared in Swamp Women, director Roger Corman‘s directorial debut. Coleen Gray plays Hayden’s loyal girlfriend. Ms. Gray had a long, prolific career as an actress, but never achieved the stardom that many predicted.

 As viewers, we are included in most of the strategy involved in the heist and recognize many of the details as they occur. One of the more fascinating scenes is a bar fight featuring Kola Kwariani. This is a very unusually staged fight and is actually quite humorous today, with a touch of The Three Stooges. This was Mr. Kwariani’s only film appearance and it’s quite memorable for a professional wrestler! Another sequence that really stands out features Timothy Carey as a sharpshooter. His speech pattern is a bit bizarre, but we never doubt his commitment to the cause. Carey’s character has a very daring exchange with a race track security guard that is even uncomfortable so many years later.

Kubrick was groomed as a still photographer and his expert eye is obvious in each of his films. His approach to filming the horse racing scenes is spectacular, and stands in contrast to his love of stressed faces in close-ups. Supposedly Rodney Dangerfield appears as an extra during the bar fight, but I missed him. Probably need the DVD for that! This one is certainly worth checking out for a glimpse into early Kubrick and the screen magnetism of Sterling Hayden … who 16 years later (as Sgt McClusky) would break the jaw of Michael Corleone with a single punch, and later be the victim of one of Hollywood’s all-time mob hit scenes in Louis restaurant.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are interested in what early Kubrick looks like compared to his later hits OR you want to see Sterling Hayden in prime form

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: the gangster and heist films of the 40’s and 50’s aren’t to your taste

see the original trailer: