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Direct hit

It is outrageous, of course. The President of the United States of America is named Merkin Muffley. The Premier of Russia is Dimitri Kissof and the ambassador is de Sadesky. The commander of Burpelson Air Force Base is Gen. Jack D. Ripper. There is a Col. "Bat" Guano. But outrageous, excessive, and nearly insane is exactly what Stanley Kubrick wanted to be in Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

The story is that of the end of the world. Ripper is a maniac, a rightist fanatic who is worried about the Commie plot to put fluoride in our drinking water and debilitate us by interfering with the "purity of our body fluids." This ought to sound impossibly stupid, and it does, but it also has an uncomfortably familiar ring. Ripper takes it upon himself to bomb the Soviet Union, which is something that hardly bears thinking about, but which Kubrick makes perfectly plausible.

Strangelove throughout is all too plausible. As Kubrick says: "The greatest message of the film is in the laughs. You know, it's true! The most realistic things are the funniest."

In a weird way, he is perfectly right. It is hilarious to watch Peter Sellers as President Muffley talking to Kissof on the phone and getting into an argument with Kissof about which one of them is sorrier for what has happened. It is uproarious when the SAC fliers in the B-52 go over their survival kits: money in rubles, dollars, and gold, Benzedrine, cigarettes, nylons, chocolate, chewing gum, prophylactics, tranquilizers, and so on. ("I could have a pretty fine weekend with this in Vegas," one of the fliers remarks a bit ruefully.)

Or there is Sellers again, this time as Ripper's adjutant, Group Captain Mandrake, the only man in the world who knows the code that must be used to recall the bomber. He must call the President. There is a phone booth. But the White House doesn't accept collect calls from unknown group captains. he tells "Bat" Guano to shoot off the lock from a Coke machine for the 55 cents, but Guano, in shock and horror says: "That's private property!"

Dangerous Toys: This is low clowning, of course, but it suggests all too clearly that human society is not yet so well organized as to be able to afford such dangerous toys as hydrogen bombs. Even the discussion about the probable war and the possible end of the world is ridiculous because it is so familiar. George C. Scott, as Gen. "Buck" Turgidson, is in favour of sending the rest of the planes to knock the Reds off the map. Their retaliatory force, he says, will be reduced so that the U.S. will suffer "only acceptable casualties - ten to twenty megadeaths," and he adds with a sporting shrug, "depending on the breaks." It is crazy. It is fantastic and obscene. The idea of 20 million deaths and the word that makes an abstraction out of it are both simply ridiculous.

That Stanley Kubrick has had the nerve to say so, and that he has said it in a comedy, which makes it all the sharper, all the clearer, and that much better a film, is truly fine. Kubrick, and his biting bitter satire, stands as eloquent testimony not only to the possibilities of intelligent comment in film, but to the great freedom which moviemakers have, even if most of them have not dared use it. That thundering "No" is thrilling to see on the screen.

It is also side-splittingly funny. At its very worst, even at the grim moment of truth, Kubrick keeps his nerve and drops the bomb, with Slim Pickens riding it down to doom like a cowboy riding a bronco - with a wild wave of his stupid Stetson and a yell of sheer exaltation that turns imperceptibly, but surely into a cry of pure terror, without the slightest change in timbre, volume, or pitch. The edge of that yell is a razor's edge, and it cuts deep.

How Kubrick did it

Stanley Kubrick does everything in his films except act. He finds a story, shapes the script, chooses all the actors, supervises the lighting and costumes, operates the cameras, directs the cast, edits the film, and then supervises the publicity. On Strangelove, which was filmed without the cooperation of any government agency, he was also the sole military adviser, bringing to bear all his military experience - watching war movies at Loew's in New York.

Naturally, the picture was made without Pentagon help. The instrument-jammed B-52 cockpit was built from a picture in a British magazine. It cost $100,000. And each shot of the B-52 in flight, made with a 10-foot model and a moving matte, cost more than $6,000.

Such painstaking attention to every film-making detail is the natural result of Kubrick's whole approach to his subject. He did not just sit down and decide to make a comedy about the end of the world. Over a six-year period, just for his own edification, and at first with no idea of making a film, he devoured some 70 books on nuclear war, subscribed to Missiles and Rockets, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and a megaton of other magazines and pamphlets. One day he came across Two Hours to Doom (called Red Alert in the U.S.), a suspense novel about an Air Force general triggering off a nuclear holocaust, and decided that had to be his next movie.

Once committed, he never let up. "Kubrick has a fantastic drive," says novelist Terry Southern, who collaborated on the brilliant screenplay of Strangelove. "He's got a weird metabolism; while I'm taking Dexamil, he's taking Seconal."

The book was dead serious, but the 34-year-old Kubrick found that each time he tried to create a scene, it came up funny. "How the hell could the President ever tell the Russian Premier to shoot down American planes?" he asked, with a broad wave of his hand. "Good Lord, it sounds ridiculous."

SRO: Actually Kubrick's chief concern now is fantasy, the sort of "nightmare comedy" that Red Alert came to be. "The real image doesn't cut the mustard, doesn't transcend," he says. "I'm now interested in taking a story, fantastic and improbable, and trying to get to the bottom of it, to make it seem not only real, but inevitable."

Dr. Strangelove, filmed with the backing and the blessing of Columbia Pictures, cost $1,5 million, and, as Southern says, "If anyone submitted the script cold to a major studio, the reaction would be, 'Are you kidding?'"

Kubrick can now call his own shots, but how can you top a movie about total annihilation? He is fascinated by outer space, which he thinks is inhabited, and he is reading and reading and reading about it. Or, "I can always do a story about overpopulation," says Kubrick. "Do you realize that in 2020 there will be no room on earth for all the people to stand? The really sophisticated worriers are worried about that."

Newsweek, February 3, 1964

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