- On Case's Calling Dr. Strangelove: The Anatomy and Influence of the Kubrick Masterpiece
In Calling Dr. Strangelove George Case offers a useful and entertaining tour through the iconic 1964 film directed by Stanley Kubrick. Case explores thoroughly the making of the film, from its initial origins as a pulp novel authored by Peter George (under the pen name Peter Bryant), through its legacies in contemporary American culture. As Case does so, he provides the reader with valuable connections between the black comedy and the equally absurd reality it parodied.
The book looks closely at the novel's plot, highlighting its foundation in the real structures of American and British nuclear policy in the 1950s and early 1960s. Case describes the British, Soviet, and American bomber forces charged with constantly patrolling the air so that they could retaliate at any moment if any of those nations came under attack. Of course these plans for retaliation were only defensive and could be put into action only under the command of the nations' leaders—until President Dwight Eisenhower introduced a loophole allowing junior staff to launch missiles in case communication was disrupted. It was this precarious structure that animated the George novel, as well as the Kubrick film's satire, although by the time of the film's release, that loophole had been closed. [End Page 113]
After tracing the book's origins to this frightening reality, Case describes Stanley Kubrick's gradual decision to bring out the absurd humor in the political situation. Although Kubrick initially intended to play the novel straight, within the first few weeks of writing the screenplay, the outrageous and ridiculous nature of the subject matter indicated to him the direction the film needed to take. According to Kubrick, "I found that in trying to put meat on the bones and to imagine the scenes more fully . . . one had to keep leaving things out which were either absurd or paradoxical in order to keep it from being funny, and these things seemed to be close to the heart of the scenes in question" (23). Case describes Kubrick's intense research into the subject of nuclear warfare, and his close work with George and writer Terry Southern to transform that subject into comedy.
Case then moves into a discussion of the production, researching the experiences of the film's bit actors as well as major stars. One of the strengths of this book is that it addresses Kubrick's reputation as a dictatorial auteur but also highlights the experiences, input, and participation of a host of other people involved in the film. He describes the challenges of working with Peter Sellers, for example, as well as the competition between the release of this film and the very similar, very non-funny Sidney Lumet film Fail Safe (USA, 1964). Kubrick sued Fail Safe's production company and screenwriters for having appropriated his plot; the settlement allowed Fail Safe to be produced as it was but with a later release date that ensured that Dr. Strangelove would grab the attention of critics and audiences and consign Fail Safe to relative obscurity. Case next provides a thorough description of the film's influential opening credits, plot, and scenes, identifying the real historical events and individuals that inspired the film's satire, and describing in some detail the director's influential camera angles and musical choices.
In the final two chapters, Case examines the immediate positive reception of the film, as well as its manifold legacies and significance for the contemporary era. Although not an Oscar-winner or box-office titan, the film succeeded on both the critical and popular levels, as Kubrick had hoped. The film, Case notes, resonated with the West's growing frustration over the absurdities and intensifying dangers of the Cold War, while its ironic tone and broad satire fit with the contemporary cultural trend toward "sick humor." And it was not simply a relic...