7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024
Humanities Quadrangle, Room L02 (320 York)
Introduction by Steve Lamoreaux and Brian Meacham
Film Notes by Michael Kerbel

Directed by Stanley Kubrick (1964), 95 mins
Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick, Peter George, and Terry Southern
Based on the novel
Red Alert by Peter George
Cinematography by Gilbert Taylor
Produced by Columbia Pictures
Starring Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn, Slim Pickens, Peter Bull, and James Earl Jones

Stanley Kubrick’s interest in nuclear weapons began in the 1950s, when he read approximately 80 books on the subject. Kubrick: “I became aware of the almost wholly paradoxical nature of deterrence. If you are weak, you may invite a first strike. If you are becoming too strong, you may invite a preemptive strike. If you try to maintain the delicate balance, it’s almost impossible to do so, because secrecy prevents you from knowing what the other side is doing, and vice versa, ad infinitum.”

One of the books that fascinated Kubrick was a thriller, Red Alert (1958), by Peter George, with whom Kubrick began developing a script in early 1962. “I started work on the screenplay with every intention of making the film a serious treatment on the problem of accidental nuclear war,” Kubrick said, “but as I kept trying to imagine the way in which things would really happen, ideas kept coming to me which I would discard because they were ludicrous…I began to realize that all the things I was throwing out were the things that were the most truthful…The only way to tell the story was as a black comedy, or better, a nightmare comedy.”

The Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, which threatened to turn the long-standing U.S.-U.S.S.R. Cold War into nuclear war, ensured that we couldn’t stop worrying about the bomb. The public’s continual anxiety made Dr. Strangelove—a pitch-black, way-over-the-top satire in which the world may be annihilated (mild spoilers ahead) because a sexually dysfunctional, psychopathic general named Jack D. Ripper believes that his “precious bodily fluids” have been weakened by Commie fluoridation—especially outrageous.

Kubrick had demonstrated his flair for dark comedy in his most recent film Lolita (1962), which is often overshadowed by Peter Sellers’s wild turns as the multi-faceted Claire Quilty. Sellers similarly dominates Dr. Strangelove, with inspired semi-improvisations as three characters. The film also recalls Kubrick’s The Killing (1956) and Paths of Glory (1957), with its deep-focus photography, combination of documentary-style realism and Expressionism, long takes, expressive use of settings (notably the War Room, designed by Ken Adam), and tight structure; and it introduces the director’s signature brilliant use of “found” non-diegetic music.

A press preview scheduled for November 22, 1963, the day of JFK’s assassination, was canceled. Columbia then set the premiere for December 1963, but the studio, concerned that it was still too soon to present a satirical portrayal of a U.S. President, delayed the opening to January 29, 1964 (almost exactly 60 years ago today). The film was instantly controversial. Some critics objected to the military and political caricatures and, predictably, called it un-American. But others were positive, even ecstatic. Dwight MacDonald: “the funniest and most serious American movie in a long time. Stanley Kauffmann: “It is so truthful, so unsparing, so hopeless in the last pit-bottom depths of that word, that the very blackness has a kind of shine.” Even Bosley Crowther (The New York Times), who disparaged the film as “beyond question the most shattering sick joke I’ve ever come across,” credited it as “one of the cleverest and most incisive satiric thrusts at the awkwardness and folly of the military that have ever been on the screen.”

Dr. Strangelove was a commercial success, and a year after its premiere, it received four Academy Award nominations: Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Actor (Sellers). The film emerged Oscarless, but it has stood the test of time and is inarguably a landmark of world cinema. Back in 1964, a few months after Dr. Strangelove’s premiere, Kubrick, still contemplating humankind’s possible fate, approached Arthur C. Clarke about collaborating on a science fiction film set in the not-too-distant future. Opening four years later, 2001: A Space Odyssey envisioned a world in which we really might stop worrying about the bomb, but would confront a new potential Doomsday Machine, artificial intelligence.

DID YOU KNOW: After reciting the Survival Kit contents, Major Kong (Slim Pickens) said, “A fella could have a pretty good weekend in Dallas with all that stuff,” but, due to Columbia’s continued sensitivity about JFK’s assassination, in post-production looping the city was changed to “Vegas.”

Presented in Treasures from the Yale Film Archive, with support from Paul L. Joskow '70 M.Phil., '72 Ph.D. Printed Film Notes are distributed to the audience before each Treasures screening.

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Friday, January 26, 2024 - 1:00pm