Paul Mazursky, to whom Stanley Kubrick gave his first substantial role in Kubrick’s own first feature film, Fear and Desire (1953), recalls their driving together on a mission to hit up the young director’s uncle for a loan to finance the film. “I’m gonna get the money from him no matter what—I can tell you that right now,” Kubrick said. “And he spat at the windshield from inside the car.” Some sixty years later, Michael Herr, the author of the Vietnam memoir Dispatches and collaborator with Kubrick on Full Metal Jacket (1987), wrote, “You’d have to be Herman Melville to transmit the full strength of Stanley’s will.”
This Jewish Ahab grew up in the Bronx, where he played percussion in a high school swing band (the lead singer was Eydie Gormé) and earned a reputation as a dreamy kid with a short attention span. His mind was not on his drums or on his schoolwork. He regularly cribbed chemistry homework from Steven Marcus, his good friend and classmate and my late Columbia colleague. When Steven asked Stanley why he didn’t do his own assignments, he got this placid reply: “I’m not interested.”
What did interest him was the Graflex single-lens high-speed camera his father had given him for his thirteenth birthday, with which he learned to capture crisp images of subjects in motion. Soon he was spending hours in the darkroom in the apartment of another friend, whose mother was heard to complain, “Kubrick the nudnik is here again.”
The nudnik first sold a photo, of a downcast news vendor surrounded by tabloid headlines announcing the death of FDR, at age seventeen to Look magazine. Over the next five years Look used his images in 135 articles.1 As David Mikics points out in his sharp and sensitive Stanley Kubrick: American Filmmaker, written for the Yale Jewish Lives series, he liked to set his photos in “limbolike places”—subway platforms, waiting and dressing rooms, stairways—where people were on the move or anticipating transport to somewhere else.
Like every precocious kid with a camera, Kubrick couldn’t get enough of the movies. Marcus told me that his first experience of an authoritative lecture came not in college but in his early teens while walking home with Kubrick after seeing John Ford’s film adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath. Steven wanted to talk politics. But Stanley, like a music prodigy who plays from memory every note of a piece he has just heard for the first time, held forth in high excitement about Ford’s technique—this wide shot, that tight shot, the backlighting of one scene, the coordination of music and mood in another, and on and on.
In 1950, at age twenty-one, he translated theory into practice with an amazingly assured twelve-minute documentary, Day of the Fight, about the middleweight boxer Walter Cartier, a pious young man whose hands—on which Kubrick trains his camera—stroke his dog by day and coil into fists at night. Three years later, with the help of Uncle Marty’s loan, Kubrick finished Fear and Desire, about soldiers lost in enemy territory in an unidentified war.
Mikics calls the hour-long film “fatally adolescent,” and so it was—but it was also insolently inventive. There’s a weird bondage scene in which a young woman shackled to a tree (played by Virginia Leith with something like Paulette Goddard’s latent vivacity) laps up water from the cupped hands of one of her captors (Mazursky), who becomes aroused by the touch of her tongue. Later the men burst into a cabin where the camera careens between low- and high-angle shots as they slash enemy soldiers to death, then gorge themselves on a steaming stew as if they are eating their victims’ entrails.
Kubrick later derided the film as a “bumbling, amateur film exercise.” But Joseph Burstyn, who had introduced Open City and The Bicycle Thief to American audiences, liked it enough to distribute it to the fledgling network of “art houses,” and James Agee found “too many good things in the film to call it arty.” Among the good—and predictive—things was Kubrick’s penchant for arresting the moving picture at key moments and turning it into a still, as when he held the camera on one of the knifed men, whose ammunition belt strikes the eye like ribs extruding from a corpse.
Two years later he released his first professional production, Killer’s Kiss (1955), another film about a fighter, remembered now mainly for a boxing scene—gloved fists thrusting into taut but yielding flesh—that has an aphrodisiac effect on the ringside spectators, men and women alike. The film was filled with noir conventions—a rooftop chase, an alleyway beating—but there were also striking images that caught the desperation of people feeling their youth ebb away in the indifferent city. Framed in a window, her face half in shadow, a young woman caresses her coffee cup, fingernails glistening, and lifts it slowly to her lips while gazing at a man dressing by his undraped window across the airshaft. In a repeated scene that’s a motif for the whole film, couples move stiffly around the floor of a Times Square dance hall—men calculating their chance for more than a dance with their paid partners, women caught between prostituting themselves and yearning for a lover.
Kubrick later became notorious for the long intervals between his films, but in those early years he turned them out fast. Barely a year after Killer’s Kiss came The Killing (1956), budgeted above $300,000, still paltry by Hollywood standards but more than four times the budget of Killer’s Kiss. With echoes of Jules Dassin’s Rififi (eight years earlier Kubrick had done a photo shoot for Look on the making of Dassin’s The Naked City), it follows a group of down-and-out men, led by a hard-boiled gangster played by Sterling Hayden, as they plan a heist at a big-purse racetrack. There are flashes of visual ingenuity, but the film is alternately gritty and parodic, as if Kubrick couldn’t decide whether he was making a thriller or a caper, and it gives little hint of the next work that was forming in his mind.
He had first read Humphrey Cobb’s World War I novel Paths of Glory when he was fourteen. The book recounts a French assault on an impregnable German position (“a miniature Gibraltar,” Cobb calls it) in which the attackers advance only a few yards before falling back under heavy fire into their own trench, trailing behind them charred and shredded corpses. Collaborating with Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson, Kubrick wrote a screenplay based on Cobb’s novel. Kirk Douglas read it, signed up to star as the field commander Colonel Dax, and helped talk United Artists into a budget of nearly $1 million.
Paths of Glory opened in the US on Christmas Day, 1957. It was the first of many Kubrick films in which the soundtrack not only propels but deepens the visual narrative. The score, by his friend Gerald Fried, intersperses snippets of Johann Strauss’s bright but tense Künstlerleben waltz with frightful silences and the hiss and thump of snare and bass drums. The film begins with a fanfare fragment of the “Marseillaise,” then moves into the grand salon of a baroque chateau, where gilded furnishings with cabriole legs seem to curtsy to a pair of beribboned generals as they circle the room in an uneasy pas de deux while debating the pros and cons of mounting an assault. Soon we see and hear the result: men on their bellies crawling through mud and blood, or in a futile crouch tramping toward death, enveloped in a kind of hideous anti-music that sounds like an amplified insect swarm, punctuated by blasts from Dax’s whistle as he prods them on.
After the attack fails, a court-martial condemns three survivors to death as a warning to anyone who might falter during the next attempt—the first is picked by lot, the second by a superior who dislikes him, the third by an officer who wants him dead because he has incriminating knowledge of the officer’s cowardice in combat. The execution scene, its appalling cruelty cloaked in ceremony, bears a grotesque resemblance to the presentation of debutantes at a cotillion ball. The doomed men, one barely conscious on a stretcher, are paraded, displayed, photographed by a half-smiling cameraman, and formally introduced. Then they die—in dazed, stoic, or whimpering agony. Kubrick’s film—banned in France for nearly twenty years—was a searing account of functionaries using the pretext of national honor to destroy other men’s lives in service of their own ambitions. The director was not yet thirty.
It was the first film to which he attracted a Hollywood star, whom he treated with strategic deference. Douglas’s character has a complexity that’s missing from the novel, and Kubrick flattered Douglas’s vanity by giving him a scene in which he appears shirtless. The deference paid off. By early 1959 filming had begun on Spartacus, a high-budget spectacle based on Howard Fast’s novel about the rebellious Roman slave, with Douglas as producer and lead. Two weeks into the shoot, he fired its director, Anthony Mann (who had criticized his acting), and offered the job to the intense young man with whom he had recently worked. “I’m starting tomorrow,” Kubrick told a friend, “and I haven’t even seen the sets.”
Spartacus was a commissioned job rather than a creation of Kubrick’s imagination—a costume epic with Douglas as the valiant hero and Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, and Peter Ustinov looking like frat brothers at an alumni toga party. The upstart director had to contend not only with big-ego actors but with a seasoned cinematographer, Russell Metty, who mocked him (“Get that little Jew-boy from the Bronx off my crane”) for his long spells of looking through the camera. There are a few moments of real power—a reprise of Killer’s Kiss in which muscled gladiators bring spectators to a pitch of erotic excitement and, at the end of the film, a grisly yet formal vista with crucified slave rebels dying on crosses spaced evenly along the Appian Way like ornamental trees.
Kubrick later dismissed Spartacus as “the only film I wasn’t happy with,” but he got what he wanted from it: box-office receipts and a reputation for getting the job done. He now applied those assets to a conception more his own but also more dubious as material for a film. He and the producer James Harris had bought the rights to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita upon its American publication in 1958.
The first problem with turning Nabokov’s novel into a movie was its scandalous subject: a sexual predator for whom “there is no other bliss on earth comparable to that of fondling a nymphet.” But there was another problem: the perversely ecstatic style in which Nabokov’s protagonist, Humbert Humbert, tells his story. He speaks in a voice both randy and devotional, as if Dante were singing an ode to Beatrice in her first bikini. How could this outrageously melodic voice be transposed to the screen?
By the time of Lolita’s release in 1962, the Motion Picture Production Code was no longer strictly enforced, but much of what Humbert says in the book—not to mention what he does—was still unsayable in a movie. Proper American fathers paid their children an allowance for mowing the lawn or walking the dog (“I loathe dogs,” says Humbert), but this stepfather pays his stepdaughter for sexual favors (“knowing the magic and might of her own soft mouth, she managed—during one schoolyear!—to raise the bonus price of a fancy embrace to three, and even four bucks”) despite his worry that the housekeeper will find stains on their shared sheets. It was one thing to express such matters in euphemistic prose. To put them on the screen would have made even Lenny Bruce, Kubrick’s favorite comedian, blush.
He had undertaken the film as if on a dare. Then he flinched. He directed James Mason (Olivier and David Niven had turned down the part) to play Humbert with nervous diffidence—“like that of a man,” as Mikics nicely puts it, “who has misplaced his glasses” and must grope his way around an unfamiliar room. To Lolita, played by fourteen-year-old Sue Lyon with an air of been-there-done-that nonchalance, Humbert seems not so much a sinister adult as just another horny boy. In Nabokov’s novel he is a chatterbox monster. In Kubrick’s Lolita he’s a schlemiel.
Even though the film is a bleached version of the novel, it’s still hard to watch today.2 But Kubrick’s effort to make a taboo movie saturated with irony was a productive rehearsal for Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), which obliterated whatever remained of the distinction between comedy and horror and lifted him—still under forty—onto the Hollywood A-list. While working on Lolita, Kubrick had bought the rights to Red Alert (1958), a novel by the retired RAF pilot Peter George about a rogue military officer who launches a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union.3 He initially intended to make a serious movie about nuclear brinkmanship but decided (a decision that helped break his partnership with Harris) that the story would work better as a black comedy.
For multiple roles in the movie, he brought back Peter Sellers, who in Lolita had played Humbert’s nemesis, Clare Quilty, and with whom Kubrick had developed a rollicking friendship. To play General Jack D. Ripper—named in honor of the eminent Victorian—he reached back to The Killing for the stolid Sterling Hayden, who, he correctly suspected, had a secret comic talent. General Ripper, an Air Force base commander, has become alarmed by feelings of fatigue and depletion after sex. “Luckily,” he explains to his British adjutant, played by Sellers with mute stupefaction, “I was able to interpret these feelings correctly”: they are caused by a Communist plot to “sap and impurify” the US water supply and everything that flows from it, including his “precious bodily fluids.” So he withholds his ejaculations and sends a nuclear-armed bomber squadron to attack the Soviet Union in order to make the world safe for American orgasms. It all makes perfect sense, if you think about it.
Meanwhile, over at the Pentagon, the president and his top brass turn the War Room into a Romper Room, where they try to figure out how—or whether—to recall the renegade squadron. Among them is General Buck Turgidson (called General Schmuck in an earlier script), modeled on the actual air force chief of staff Curtis LeMay and played with befuddled pomposity by George C. Scott. President Merkin Muffley, based on Adlai Stevenson and also played by Sellers, is named for a pubic wig. And then there was Sellers’s third, uproarious performance as Dr. Strangelove—modeled in part on the cheerfully apocalyptic geostrategist Herman Kahn, who had coined the term “wargasm” to describe World War III.4 Dr. Strangelove is so excited by the approach of Götterdämmerung that he can’t constrain his arm from popping up like an irrepressible erection in a “Mein Führer!” salute.
The film marked the debut of Kubrick’s inner Lenny Bruce. Sometimes it feels like a juvenile phallic joke—from the copulative images of B-52s refueling through waggling hoses, to Ripper’s enormous cigar, to Major Kong (played with goofy earnestness by Slim Pickens) riding his missile through the bomb bay doors like a rodeo cowboy with a bucking beast between his legs. But mostly it was—and still is—too close to credibility for comfort. Shot in black and white with an expressionistic palette of harsh light and shadow, it is simultaneously hilarious and terrifying.
In little more than a decade of apprenticeship—to himself—Kubrick had made seven feature films. In the remaining thirty-five years of his life he was to make six more—2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Barry Lyndon (1975), The Shining (1980), Full Metal Jacket (1987), and Eyes Wide Shut (1999). A few months after the release of Dr. Strangelove, which earned five times its production budget on initial release, he amended a proposed two-movie deal with Columbia Pictures (he ultimately signed with MGM). “I must have complete total final annihilating artistic control over the picture,” he wrote on the draft contract. Just in case anyone missed the point, he added that he would refuse to comb his hair.
MGM had acquired a money-eating machine. Kubrick’s first film for the studio, 2001: A Space Odyssey, went nearly $5 million over budget. He became infamous for requiring endless retakes. “Like a still photographer,” recalled Frederic Raphael, who worked with him on Eyes Wide Shut, “he always hoped that something better might come of repetition.” This is the familiar version of Kubrick as perfectionist and micromanager, of whom Terry Southern, who helped steer Dr. Strangelove toward madcap comedy, remarked that he “scarcely let as much as a trouser pleat go unsupervised.”
Mikics gives us this Kubrick in entertaining detail. Having obtained a supersensitive Zeiss lens capable of filming by candlelight, he drove the art director of Barry Lyndon batty by requiring each new batch of candles to be burned down to precisely the same level for every retake. But Mikics gives us, too, the “self-effacing” (George C. Scott’s phrase) Kubrick whose confidence had nothing to do with arrogance. Stanley “admired anybody,” said Harris, “who thought enough about something to have an idea.” In this sense all his movies were collaborative and improvisational. The idea for the scene midway through 2001 in which the mutinous computer reads the astronauts’ lips with its “nervously pulsating red eye, beating softly like a heart,” as Mikics writes, came from Gary Lockwood (who played astronaut Frank Poole), and Kubrick gratefully ran with it.
With the exception of the gaudy Spartacus, his previous films had been shot in black and white. Now, in the opening moments of 2001, he created a color composition-in-motion unlike anything ever seen on screen: soft strands of cloud trailing across a Frederic Church sunrise, a sky of proximate violets and reds shimmering across indistinct boundaries as if painted by Rothko, skeletal animal remains in the foreground like jagged modernist sculptures against a deep background of dirt and dust. As the camera takes us into this barren landscape, we feel both apart from and among the man-apes huddled in fear of predatory beasts, rival tribes, the cold, the night, death itself.5 2001 was a tribute to the collective genius of humanity for having turned this merciless world into a place fit for human habitation. It was also a merciless assault on the delusion that the world is susceptible to human will.
Kubrick once remarked that “representing a broad panorama of history has always proved to be the undoing of film makers.” In 2001, he did the undoable with a jump-cut that was among the most dazzling cinematic ideas since Chaplin’s dance of the rolls in The Gold Rush: the alpha man-ape, exulting in the killing power of his bone-club, flings it toward the sky, drawing our eyes upward as we follow it out of prehistory to twenty-first-century spaceships drifting, spinning, dancing to the fantastically apt “Blue Danube” waltz.
Based loosely on a story by Arthur C. Clarke from which Kubrick stripped away all explanation, 2001 was a mysterious, immersive experience, utterly resistant to synopsis or summary. It had a “wide-open quality,” as Mikics writes, that “demanded that viewers speculate rather than simply being absorbed by what they saw on screen.” In this sense, Kubrick collaborated not only with his actors but with his viewers, too. The film made every previous space travel movie feel primitive and every one since feel derivative. It was by turns witty, reverent, and terrifying, as when the astronaut Poole, his umbilical oxygen hose cut, suffocates with spasmodic gasps, then drifts inert into the black infinite. As in many of Kubrick’s films, the actors (from Frank Silvera in Killer’s Kiss to Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut) speak in a labored monotone as if they’ve looked up the words in some tourist dictionary. This is not the sound of irony or indifference but of bafflement in the face of inexpressible experience.
Critics met the film with a mix of celebration and excoriation. Some marveled at it; others felt as Samuel Johnson did about Paradise Lost: “No one ever wished it longer than it is.” Hundreds of invited guests walked out of the previews or, if they stuck it out, left bewildered. As a concession to the producers, who feared they had a big bust on their hands, Kubrick reduced the original 160-minute running time by more than 10 percent. He cut some of those minutes from the prolonged scene in which Poole jogs round and round the centrifuge past hibernation chambers that look like alabaster coffins, shadow-boxing to the plangent (Mikics’s perfect word) adagio from Khachaturian’s ballet Gayane—a piece that teases the promise of resolution but delivers none. The whole hypnotic scene—aural and visual—was a metaphor for the boundedness of human life, for the inconceivable distance humanity had traveled while going nowhere. I first saw the film in the spring of 1968 before the cuts were made and remember wishing that the spooling music and rhythmic respiration would not end.
After its halting start, 2001 became one of the top-grossing movies in MGM history and gave its director a degree of creative independence unmatched since that of the young Orson Welles. Each of the films that followed in the sixteen years between A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket gets its own chapter in Mikics’s book, all of which are illuminating but feel a little dutiful after his rhapsodic pages on Kubrick’s midcareer masterpiece. Reading these chapters brought me back to my hot expectancy in the 1970s and 1980s for each new Kubrick film, about which all one could know in advance was that it would be unimaginably different from the last. Beginning with the slow zoom out from Alex’s unblinking eye, A Clockwork Orange relished his cocky charm while shocking us with his desires freely enacted (it was Malcolm McDowell’s idea to heighten the horror of the home-invasion rape by accompanying himself with “Singin’ in the Rain”). In The Shining, in the person of a father (played with alarming conviction by Jack Nicholson) who disintegrates before his wife and child, we witness self-hatred explode into murderous rage at the world. In Full Metal Jacket, we watch the tormenting of a young man (Vincent D’Onofrio in his movie debut) as if we were observing a vivisection under the operating room lights. Each of these films led further into the heart of darkness.
For me, the most affecting work of those years was the exquisite Barry Lyndon, based on but far transcending Thackeray’s novel. For a long time after I first saw it, films by other directors looked to me muddy and slapdash. Kubrick’s camera lingers at a savoring slow pace (plodding, I know, to some) on green fields, on lawns in dappled sunlight, on the glow of young couples in the first flush of desire or the pallor of an old cuckold in impotent rage, on a glance that determines the course of a life—as when Lady Lyndon (the delicately beautiful Marisa Berenson) looks across the gaming table at Barry, her longing expressed in her slender fingers fondling her chips before reaching for those warmed by his touch. Sometimes the film seems almost to freeze, inviting the viewer to absorb the composition—made yet more vivid by the startling fit of music and image—until it is lodged permanently in the mind.6
Kubrick’s theme in Barry Lyndon was the fleetingness of life exemplified in passion risen and spent, fortune won and squandered along the parabolic arc of Barry’s rise and fall—his exploitation of useful fools on the way up, his piteous descent through the unbearable loss of his child on the way down. It was a work of ravishing beauty, and on recent viewings (its colors remain sumptuous on the Blu-ray disc, released by the Criterion Collection in 2017), it still is.
The two decades between 2001 and Full Metal Jacket turned out to be a surge before a long pause. There were many aborted projects. For years Kubrick prepared fanatically for a film on Napoleon. He searched, too, for a way to make a film about the Holocaust. In the early 1990s he optioned Louis Begley’s novel Wartime Lies, about a Jewish child hiding from the Nazis, but he ultimately demurred—chastened, perhaps, by the response from Isaac Bashevis Singer, who, when approached years earlier to write a screenplay, replied that the Holocaust was a subject about which he knew nothing.
One of the interesting disclosures in Mikics’s book is Kubrick’s preoccupation with Stefan Zweig’s novella Burning Secret (1911), which he had read in the 1950s and for which he wrote an unfilmed (and recently discovered) screenplay with Calder Willingham. He was always a voracious and promiscuous reader, but he was especially drawn to Jewish writers of early-twentieth-century Mitteleuropa—Kafka, Freud, Zweig, Arthur Schnitzler—who, living midway between the tsarist pogroms and the Shoah, wrote in a tone of chronic foreboding. Their subjects were comfortable people living discontented with their numbing comforts but fearful of losing them—clerks, housewives, credentialed professionals who step up to the precipice but pull back for fear of pitching out of their settled lives.
Burning Secret was about a child who watches his mother, in the beauty of her late youth, come close to submitting to a serial seducer who would sweep her out of her catered life into a wild “adventure that would have led nowhere.” Mikics suggests that this was the seed that grew eventually in Kubrick’s mind into his final work, Eyes Wide Shut, based on Schnitzler’s novella Dream Story (1926), which tells a similar story but through the eyes of a husband rather than a son. He is a respectable doctor who steps repeatedly to the verge of some sordid infidelity while never imagining that his wife harbors similar desires. When she confesses to him her dream of sex with a stranger, his world implodes: “This woman…had revealed herself through her dream for what she really was, faithless, cruel and treacherous, and…at that moment he thought he hated [her] more profoundly than he had ever loved her.”
Kubrick had bought the rights to Dream Story in the 1960s and had made sporadic attempts to film it. He lived just long enough, until March 7, 1999, to screen the final cut of Eyes Wide Shut for Warner Brothers, six days before he died. The movie had sensuous and darkly comic moments: Nicole Kidman, as the wife of Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise), slow-dancing with a salacious rake who, if not for his unctuousness, might have gotten her upstairs for a quick fuck; her husband fending off a dead patient’s daughter who, even as he praises her father’s courage to the last, throws herself at him in the presence of the cooling corpse.
But the movie was a misfire. It was solemn, even chastising, about sexual transgression, which takes place for its leading characters solely in their minds and is enacted only in a masked orgy that Dr. Harford attends as a voyeur and where the animal urgency of the couplings is—this was Kubrick’s point—the opposite of erotic. He may not have known that he was dying, but Eyes Wide Shut had the quality of a valedictory marriage poem, a love letter to his wife, Christiane, who had told him in their youth that he was not yet ready to make a film on such a subject.
Nearly three decades before Kubrick’s death, in a review of A Clockwork Orange, Pauline Kael made the spectacularly obtuse claim that he was “a director with an arctic spirit.” The best rebuttal comes from Michael Herr:
Not even Robert Bresson showed more suffering in his films. Merciless is not the same as pitiless. In 2001, even the last words of a dying, sexually ambivalent computer are pitiful. Worse, to some unforgivable, even vicious, violent Droogie Alex in A Clockwork Orange, denatured and cast out by Em and Pee and the unspeakable Joe the Lodger, breaks your heart as he walks along the river clutching his life in a parcel, and it’s not a comfortable feeling.
To this selective list should certainly be added the final moments of Paths of Glory, in which a captured German girl, played by the young actress Christiane Harlan—shortly to become Christiane Kubrick—is dragged onstage to the accompaniment of hoots and catcalls and forced to entertain the French troops. She begins fearfully to sing a German love song about a young soldier who returns from war to see his dying sweetheart. As the camera pans across their ravaged faces, their mockery slowly subsides until first a few, then all, some in tears, join the singing.7 That scene was conceived by a man whose heart was as large as his mind.
Stanley Kubrick was an artist of Melvillean ambition (“Give me a Condor’s Quill! Give me Vesuvius’ crater for an inkstand!”). His zeal to push his medium past known limits was so extreme that it could seem almost demented. Martin Scorsese (no slouch himself) has remarked that “watching a Kubrick film is like gazing up at a mountaintop. You look up and wonder, how could anyone have climbed up that high?” It is the right question, to which there is no comprehensible answer.
May 13, 2021
The Look archive at the Museum of the City of New York includes more than 15,000 of Kubrick’s negatives and contact prints. See Through a Different Lens: Stanley Kubrick Photographs, edited by Donald Albrecht and Sean Corcoran (Taschen, 2018). ↩
It has become harder in view of Sarah Weinman’s recent revelation that James Harris initiated a sexual relationship with Lyon during the making of the film. See Sarah Weinman, “The Dark Side of Lolita,” Air Mail, October 24, 2020. ↩
In 1963 Sidney Lumet undertook an independently financed film, Fail-Safe, based on a 1962 novel with a similar story—about a computer malfunction that sends an American bomber carrying a nuclear payload toward Moscow. When Kubrick heard about Lumet’s movie, he filed a plagiarism lawsuit, the real aim of which was to delay its release until after his own film had come out. It worked. ↩
Dr. Strangelove also incorporated elements of Wernher von Braun, once Hitler’s golden boy and by 1964 NASA’s top rocket scientist; John von Neumann, who popularized the acronym MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) to describe the superpower face-off; and Edward Teller, the bushy-browed physicist whose passion for the hydrogen bomb was positively erotic. Despite Kubrick’s denials, Mikics thinks he also had Henry Kissinger in mind. ↩
Kubrick had fun, too, with these primal scenes, in which the shrieking half-monkeys resemble a spatting human family. There have been many parodies—most recently a Jeep commercial featuring howling animals during the broadcast of the 2021 Golden Globe Awards. ↩
For the candle-lit gambling scene, Kubrick used the andante of Schubert’s E-Flat Major Piano Trio, which the pianist Jeannette Fang calls “one of the most desolate slow movements of the last 200 years.” It was not slow enough for Kubrick—so his producer (and brother-in-law) Jan Harlan adapted it, elongating some passages and excising others, for a performance commissioned for the film. The result is a heartbreaking evocation of desire rising, then subsiding into doom. ↩
Sam Mendes includes a less affecting version of this scene in his 2019 film 1917. ↩