Happy Birthday, Dr. Strangelove!

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Hawk Films Production/Columbia Pictures/Kobal Collection
Stanley Kubrick and Peter Sellers in 1963, on the set of Dr. Strangelove

The following was written on the fiftieth anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s film “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.”

Stanley Kubrick began taking pictures for Look magazine in high school. He became a full-time staff photographer while in his teens, and you can find some of his extraordinary work of the late 1940s online: black-and-white shots of New Yorkers at their occupations of craft or commerce—dancers at a mirror before a nightclub show; a boxer refitting his mouthpiece between rounds; a small girl staring up at a roller coaster—“the scrimmage of appetite” in the most far-flung postures of idleness or wonder.

Kubrick said in an interview that setting up his darkroom was good practice; he thought the right preparation for any line of work was to organize a whole project and see it through yourself. Financing, writing, and filming his earliest movies on a shoestring, he turned himself into a director whom the big studios would back to do what he wanted to do. He was venerated for that independence. But he became the most admired American director of his generation for other reasons, too: the continuously grown-up subject matter—in a Kubrick film, there is never a family dog—and the always-disquieting use of space in relation to the human figure. The man behind the camera was possessed of an uncanny power of detachment; and this gave all his films a style, formal, rigorous, and unfamiliar, that no other director can ever be confused with.

Dr. Strangelove was released on January 29, 1964. It was Kubrick’s seventh film, but only the fourth in which he took much pride. Before it had come The Killing (1956), a crime story about a robbery during a horse race; Paths of Glory (1957), a film of World War I centering on a court-martial after a defeat in battle; and Lolita (1962), which Kubrick transformed into an unsettling romantic drama. Spartacus (1960) was more famous than any of these predecessors, but Kubrick would later disclaim interest in every aspect of the finished film except the sequence of gladiatorial training. There are, incidentally, in many of his films, elaborate scenes of training, or the planning of a large-scale action (often a violent, illegal, or impersonal action). Such rehearsals for action are at the heart of the war-room sequences in Dr. Strangelove. You see them again in the recorded regimen of marine training that takes up the first half of his film about the Vietnam War, Full Metal Jacket (1987).

What was the war room? This astonishing cavern, whose dimensions were 100 feet by 130 feet (with a ceiling 35 feet high), was built for Dr. Strangelove by the set designer Ken Adam. Nobody had ever seen anything like it. And yet everyone who thought about such things, in the early 1960s, must have imagined such …

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