The Cold War has heated up with rumours of a special weapon designed by the Soviets, but is there any truth to these rumours? The world is about to find out when General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) calls his second in command, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers), on an internal line to inform him that the orders have been given to launch a nuclear attack on the U.S.S.R. "Oh hell," exclaims the R.A.F. officer, and is also alarmed by Ripper's instructions to round up any radios and prepare to repel any outside forces. But is there really any cause for alarm?
Well, if there wasn't before there certainly is now. Based on a serious novel, Red Alert by Peter George, Stanley Kubrick realised halfway through adapting the book that what he had here was not a chilling prophecy of doom, but a pitch black comedy and co-writer Terry Southern only enhanced that element. Ironically, at the time this was being made a serious version of the story was being shot in the shape of Fail-Safe, yet Dr Strangelove was the one that went down in history as the more memorable.
This might be because no matter how ridiculously the characters behave, it's still chilling - still convincing. You would have to be deranged to create weapons of such devastating power - a force the film is continually reminding us of - and be of a mind to use them, the film points out, and therefore those in charge are subject to the same flaws that we civilians are. This means that human foibles, such as arrogance and sexual frustration, may well lead to disaster when they emerge in the men (there's only one woman in the film) who have their fingers on the button.
Of course, the "Commies" have not launched an attack, and Ripper is insane (impotence has toppled him over the edge, we discover later) having lied about orders to send American bombers to drop the H-bomb on the Soviet Union. Hayden is perfect as the mad General, chomping a cigar and offering his opinions on the moral bankruptcy of putting fluoride in water (and poisoning our "precious bodily fluids"), but Sellers, as the apparent straight man, matches him all the way.
In three performances that reputedly relied on some keenly observed improvisation, Sellers is at his most brilliant here. Mandrake is the most sympathetic (and the only one with a normal-sounding name), the sanest of all the characters in his attempts to thwart the attack and understand the mindset that has put him in this position. Then there's his President, weak and mild mannered and battling his hawkish army chief General Buck Turgidson, played by George C. Scott, equally in one of the crowning achievements of his career.
The third is the titular Dr Strangelove, a wheelchair-bound ex-Nazi scientist (maybe not so much of the "ex", actually) who struggles with an out of control, black-gloved hand and offers a solution to Armageddon: wait it out with a bevy of beauties for breeding purposes. The calm that the characters try to hold their conversations in is at odds with the hysterical situation they have found themselves in and adds to the laughs: the President's trying-to-be-reasonable telephone conversations with "Dmitri" the Soviet Premier are one of many highlights. But one plane does get through, despite events giving the attack every opportunity to be called off and the armed forces' pigheadedness proves the world's undoing. It's only at the end that the enormity of what has happened hits you, and makes you ponder exactly how funny any of it actually is. Music by Laurie Johnson.
American director famous for his technical skills and endless film shoots, who made some of modern cinema's greatest pictures. New York-born Kubrick began shooting documentaries in the early 50s, leading to his first directing jobs on the moody noir thrillers Killer's Kiss and The Killing. The powerful anti-war film Paths of Glory followed, leading star Kirk Douglas to summon Kubrick to direct the troubled Spartacus in 1960.
Lolita was a brave if not entirely successful attempt to film Nabokov's novel, but Kubrick's next three films were all masterpieces. 1964's Dr Strangelove was a brilliant, pitch black war comedy, 2001: A Space Odyssey set new standards in special effects, while A Clockwork Orange was a hugely controversial, shocking satire that the director withdrew from UK distribution soon after its release. Kubrick, now relocated to England and refusing to travel elsewhere, struggled to top this trio, and the on-set demands on his cast and crew had become infamous.
Barry Lyndon was a beautiful but slow-paced period piece, The Shining a scary Stephen King adaptation that was nevertheless disowned by the author. 1987's Vietnam epic Full Metal Jacket showed that Kubrick had lost none of his power to shock, and if the posthumously released Eyes Wide Shut was a little anti-climatic, it still capped a remarkable career.