Very few directors ever get the opportunity to make two unquestioned masterpieces in a single career, let alone back to back. Not only did Stanley Kubrick manage to pull off this rare feat, he accomplished it in the same decade the release of Dr. Strangelove in 1964 and 2001: A Space Odyssey just four years later.
Officially, the title of Kubrick’s first masterpiece is Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. You will most often hear it referred to simply as Dr. Strangelove, however. One of the necessary pieces of information you need to fully understand the significance and impact of Kubrick’s black comedy about the end of civilization as we know it as a result of nuclear devastation is that its 1964 release came a mere two years after John Henry’s Faulk’s court victory essentially marked the official (if not the unofficial) end of the Hollywood blacklisting of any creative artist accused of even knowing someone wanting to make a film far less subversive and critical of America than Dr. Strangelove. (Not so coincidentally, the release of Spartacus, directed by Stanley Kubrick, with formerly blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo’s name in the credits for the first time in over a decade, also marked a major turning point in the history of the communist witch hunt.)
The very concept of a major Hollywood film with recognizable actors portraying a general in the American military as unhinged as Strangelove’s General Jack D. Ripper would have been as unthinkable less than a decade earlier as a full frontal nude scene by Doris Day in movie where she leaves Rock Hudson for an f-bomb spouting Sidney Poitier. Now make that movie a comedy where the crazy American general purposely tries to launch World War III by having American pull the nuclear trigger first!
Long before a 1954 version of Dr. Strangelove could even start production everyone from Kubrick to Peter Sellers would have disappeared into some dark hole in some mysterious jail cell somewhere deep beneath the offices of the heads of the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
Learning the context of the period in which Dr. Strangelove was made is important for understanding its legacy, but utterly inconsequential for appreciating its comic mastery. The reaction among those watching the movie today may contain a little less nervous laughter than those 1964 patrons attending the theater under the ever-present threat needing to put their emergency instruction to duck-and-cover to the test, but modern day viewers may also view some characters and situations far less as examples of absurd comedy than as only slightly satirical takes on reality.
The key element that has allowed Dr. Strangelove to persevere as a classic and retain its ability to make audiences laugh half a century later where other comedies once deemed classics have lost their luster is that none of the actors are allowed to give a performance as if they making a comedy. Every scene and every line of dialogue within those scenes are played completely straight as if they instead making Fail-Safe, the straight drama which tells nearly the exact same story that was released nine months later. The only way to understand that Dr. Strangelove is funny and Fail-Safe is not is to be acquainted with irony. A person who has not intuitively learned how to detect irony could never be expected to tell the difference between the two remarkably similar yet impossibly different black and white movies about a nuclear accident initiating the end of the world as we know it in 1964.
And that seems fine.