What is the overarching literary device that produces the humor of Dr. Strangelove?
The film draws its humor primarily from the use of irony, and in particular, dramatic irony. The dramatic irony in Dr. Strangelove is often derived from the three settings and the way the editing switches between them. This results in situations in which the audience often knows things that the characters do not realize about their own situations or actions. The repeated attempts of the leaders in the War Room to stop the rogue bomber are laced with dramatic irony: when the President urges the Soviet Premier to focus all of his defenses on the rogue bomber's primary and secondary targets, he does so without realizing that the plane has switched targets, which the audience does know. Additionally, much of the satirization of the military and nuclear policies is bred in this form of irony: the President and USAF did not realize things that should have been obvious, and which are obvious to the viewer, about the way their policies enabled the kind of catastrophe they wanted to avoid.
In what way is Dr. Strangelove an homage to the mad scientist movies of the past?
A common theme in Hollywood films is that people should not tamper in God’s domain. This theme forms the basis of the mad scientist movies common from the 1920s up to the era of Dr. Strangelove. In most cases, the mad scientist (such as Dr. Frankenstein) engages in scientific experimentation into those aspects of life best to God (or nature, if you prefer). Dr. Strangelove, as the US director of weapons research and development, is doing just this, and experimenting with weapons that can cause mass extinction. The parallel is drawn out especially in Dr. Strangelove's physical appearance, which nods to the mad scientist trope: he is sinister, physically deformed, with wild white hair and maniacal facial expressions. He is almost comically archetypical, and his history as a former Nazi underscores this characterization. Dr. Strangelove is an exaggeration of earlier mad scientist characterizations, such as Dr. Frankenstein, not only in his appearance but in his experiments themselves—while Frankenstein's Monster is a lone individual barely capable of terrorizing a large village, Dr. Strangelove's Monster is a technology capable of creating the kind of mass extinction that God Himself fashioned out of the flood.
Much speculation has been provided on the subject of the real-life inspiration for Dr. Strangelove with candidates ranging from the very unlikely Henry Kissinger to the far more suitable Werhner von Braun. The speculation about the real life model for General Jack D. Ripper has usually started and stopped with just one man: General Curtis LeMay. Why?
The first clue that Jack D. Ripper's character was at least partially based on General Curtis LeMay is a somewhat superficial one: both were frequently seen chomping on a cigar. On a deeper level, the comparison comes from the fact that LeMay was an ardent and vocal supporter of an American nuclear policy based on the idea that a pre-emptive strike could result in an unqualified victory. LeMay’s reputation as a potentially rogue warrior, capable of going off the deep end like his cinematic counterpart, can be traced back to a conversation in which he suggested he would issue an attack if he had a notion that the Soviet Union was preparing one. When reminded that such a pre-emptive strike was not national policy, he replied, “no, it’s my policy.” Additionally, General Curtis LeMay was one of the military advisors that President John F. Kennedy consulted during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the world closer to a nuclear catastrophe than it had ever been before or has been since. As might be expected, LeMay’s position was a bit more hawkish and aggressive than that which eventually defused the volatile real-life nuclear scare.
What effect does the style of filmmaking in Dr. Strangelove have on the film's satirical voice?
The absurdity of the story and the outrageousness of its characters are intensified by Kubrick’s choice to film his satire in a semi-documentary style. Some of the shots of the battle taking place at Burpelson Air Force Base even feature the kind of handheld camerawork that was almost the exclusive domain of documentary films in America at the time. The sterile lighting and non-intrusive camerawork create a distinct sense of detachment between what an audience has come to expect from such a realistic style of filmmaking, and such an unrealistic device as satire. By 1963, when principal photography was conducted on Dr. Strangelove, Hollywood was just a few short years away from near-total adoption of color for all its production, which means that Kubrick consciously chose to shoot the movie in black and white as another means toward achieving the look of a documentary-style drama.
Stanley Kubrick paid homage to classic Hollywood comedies by filming a pie fight in the War Room that was intended as the climax to the film. What effect might ending the film with such a slapstick and obviously “comedic” sequence have had on the initial audience reaction and subsequent legacy of Dr. Strangelove?
A pie fight is one of the icons of early Hollywood slapstick comedy. So pervasive was the pie fight during the silent era and early periods of the talkies that it began to pass over from iconic status to mere stereotype. That status places the pie in the face as the ultimate image of slapstick and the kind of farcical comic cue that runs directly counter to most of the politically satirical humor in Dr. Strangelove. The rest of the film is made up of carefully calculated serious cinematic effects and is "played straight," with little indication of comedic intentions outside of the characters' names. Instead, the humor is derived from irony and the absurdity of the situations in which the characters are placed. The pie fight might have had the effect of releasing the tension in the film, which would have been especially poignant for Cold War viewers, in a moment of “comic relief.” However, since Dr. Strangelove only appears to be a drama in its images, such a conspicuous use of comic relief might instead have had the effect of undermining the tension central to sustaining film’s satire, and undermining the film's more poignant criticisms.