Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) was the perfect film for its time. The subtitle says it all and represents Kubrick’s own idea that Peter George’s straight source novel Red Alert was too horrific to be adapted as anything but a comedy—a pitch black comedy about nothing less than the futility of the Cold War and the end of us all, but a comedy all the same. After years of fearing—almost waiting for—nuclear annihilation, the only way to deal with it was to send it up. Whistling past the graveyard? Well, yes, but it may have been the only alternative to insanity.
So much has been written—some of it even by me—on Dr. Strangelove that there’s probably not a great deal to add at this late date. However, I noticed something while watching it again this weekend that I think might be worth paying attention to. There’s a tendency to place the film somewhat outside of Kubrick’s body of work. It’s shorter than any of Kubrick’s other films of this era—considerably so. Combined with the fact that it’s a comedy (people don’t tend to put the name Kubrick together with “barrel of laughs”), it’s always been the Kubrick picture for people who don’t like Kubrick, for people who find him ponderous, cold and slow.
But looked at in terms of Kubrick’s oeuvre, it’s not all that different. In fact, it seems to me to be very much of a piece with his other films. Yes, it’s shorter, but it isn’t exactly what you’d call action-packed. It never seems to be in a hurry. The style is just as formal and mannered as the other movies. The sense of humor is occasionally broader and more obvious, but it’s the same basic sarcastic, observational tone that merely records the absurdity without engaging it per se.
It may be said to differ from other Kubrick films in that it clearly indulges its star—there are moments where Sellers is being purely Sellers and bending lines to his persona—but it’s hardly unique. Saying that Kubrick doesn’t indulge Jack Nicholson in The Shining (1980) or Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange (1971) would be absurd. Dr. Strangelove connects to those films and to those performances in its own way. And anyone who can look at this film and not think that Patrick Magee was told to play Mr. Alexander in A Clockwork Orange in the manner that Peter Bull plays the Russian ambassador here is, I believe, way off course.