Sunday, April 25, 2010

Don't Make a Scene: Dr. Strangelove

The Story: The story goes that Stanley Kubrick lured Sterling Hayden out of retirement for "Dr. Strangelove"—the two had worked before in "The Killing"—but both men had changed in the years between the two films. Hayden was not quite as precise as he'd once been—not as sharp on his marks—and Kubrick, never a slouch due to years of discipline behind a chess-board and camera, had become frighteningly, even aggravatingly, precise.

Hayden confessed to some jitters about all the uninterrupted technical babble his character, General Jack D. Ripper, had to espouse—he was worried that he might not be able to get it all in one take, no matter how many takes it took.

Kubrick, it has been reported, looked at him calmly (no doubt sizing up the words like they were an odd tactic with a rook) and said "You know, the panic in your eyes may be just the quality we need..." and anyway, he could cut around it, don't worry about it. Hayden was somewhat relieved at those words, but they weren't really meant to comfort. They were the words of someone making lemonade out of lemons, and liking the taste.

Anyway, Hayden is brilliant in "Dr. Strangelove," playing an insane part absolutely straight with no hint of irony or humor...and doing so opposite Peter Sellers, whose penchant for ad-libbing could throw any actor off their concentration.

The economy in this scene is brutal, comprised almost entirely of three shots (five if you count the preamble down the hall and the brief insert uncovering the gun): the room shot of the two military-men having a conversation, the close-up of Mandrake reacting to the soliloquy of Ripper, and Ripper's close-up, which doesn't occur until Mandrake has discovered that he is trapped in the room with a mad man while the nuclear clock ticks off down to the last seconds. Then, as they say, things get interesting.

To look at the scene in screen captures makes you believe that Hayden is frothing and spitting at the mouth in his role; he is not. He is speaking slowly and measuredly, as if Mandrake were a small child. It just looks like he's a teeth bearing maniac because Hayden is having to speak his precise lines with a very big (very big) phallic cigar in his mouth. It calls for very extreme enunciation and a lot of compensation to say things clearly with that stogie, and the effect is chilling. As is the occasional break Hayden has to make in order to breathe.

The Set-Up: Wing Attack Plan "R" has been sent to the U.S. SAC bombers routinely trafficking the skies during the Cold War in anticipation of a surprise nuclear attack from Russia. The unique plans of Plan "R" call for radio silence, in the event that normal command channels are rendered obsolete or destroyed, and a lower echelon General be empowered with launching a reprisal attack. General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) has set the plan in motion, and only a unique set of secret circumstances can recall the planes from their mission. Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers), assigned to Burpelson Air Force Base in the Officer Exchange Program (OEP), notices something amiss: if an attack, requiring such an action, were occurring, the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS)* would be broadcasting instructions to the citizenry through all broadcast channels. And that doesn't appear to be happening.



GROUP CAPTAIN LIONEL MANDRAKE walks hurriedly through the halls with the portable radio producing another jazz tune, now upbeat. Mandrake enters GENERAL JACK D. RIPPER's office.

GROUP CAPTAIN LIONEL MANDRAKE: Excuse me sir, something rather interesting's just cropped up. Listen to that.

MANDRAKE: Music. Civilian broadcasting. I think those fellows in the Pentagon have given us some sort of exercise to test our readiness.

MANDRAKE: Personally, I think it's taking it a bit too far; our fellows will be inside Russian radar cover in about twenty minutes.

MANDRAKE: You listen to that. Traffic chock full of stations all churning it out.
MANDRAKE: Yes sir?
RIPPER: I thought I issued instructions for all radios on this base to be impounded.

MANDRAKE follows RIPPER as he rises from his chair to lock his office door

MANDRAKE: Well you did indeed, sir, and I was in the process of impounding this very one when I happened to switch it on.

MANDRAKE: I thought to myself with our fellows hitting Russian radar cover in twenty minutes, dropping all their stuff, I'd better tell you, because if they do, it'll cause a bit of a stink, what?

RIPPER: Group Captain, the officer exchange program does not give you any special prerogatives to question my orders.

MANDRAKE: Well I realize that sir, but I thought you'd be rather pleased to hear the news.

MANDRAKE: I mean, after all...well, let's face it we... we don't want to start a nuclear war unless we really have to, do we?

RIPPER: Please sit down. And turn that thing off.

MANDRAKE: Yes sir.

MANDRAKE: Ah, what about the planes, sir? Surely you must issue the recall code immediately.
RIPPER: Group Captain, the planes are not going to be recalled. My attack orders have been issued and the orders stand.

MANDRAKE: Well, if you'll excuse me saying so, sir. That would be, to my way of thinking, rather... well rather an odd way of looking at it. You see, if a Russian attack was in progress...

MANDRAKE: ...we would certainly not be hearing civilian broadcasting.

RIPPER: Are you certain of that, Mandrake?

MANDRAKE: I'm absolutely positive about that, sir, yes.
RIPPER: And what if it is true?

MANDRAKE: Well I'm afraid I'm still not with you, sir.

MANDRAKE: Because, I mean, if a Russian attack was not in progress...

MANDRAKE: ...then your use of plan R...

MANDRAKE: fact your orders to the entire wing...

MANDRAKE: ... oh.

MANDRAKE: Well I would say, sir, that there was... something dreadfully wrong somewhere.

RIPPER: Now, why don't you just take it easy, Group Captain. And please make me a drink of grain alcohol and rain water, and help yourself to whatever you'd like.

MANDRAKE:(snaps to attention and salutes) General Ripper Sir --

MANDRAKE: -- as an officer in Her Majesty's Air Force, it is my clear duty, under the present circumstances, to issue the recall code, upon my own authority, and bring back the wing.

MANDRAKE: If you'll excuse me sir.

Mandrake tries all exits and finds them locked

MANDRAKE: I'm afraid sir, I must ask you for the key and the recall code. Have you got them handy sir?

RIPPER: I told you to take it easy, Group Captain. There's nothing anybody can do about this thing now. I'm the only person who knows the three letter code group.

MANDRAKE: (voice cracking): Then I must insist, sir, that you give them to me.

Ripper lifts a folder off of his desk and tosses it aside, revealing a blued, pearl handled .45 automatic.

MANDRAKE: Do I take it, sir, that you are threatening a brother officer with a gun?

RIPPER: Mandrake, I suppose it never occurred to you that while we're chatting here so enjoyably, a decision is being made by the President and the Joint Chiefs in the war room at the Pentagon.

RIPPER: And when they realize there is no possibility of recalling the wing, there will be only one course of action open --

RIPPER: -- total committment.

RIPPER: Mandrake, do you recall what Clemenceau once said about war?

MANDRAKE: No. I don't think I do sir, no.

RIPPER: He said war was to important to be left to the Generals.

RIPPER: When he said that, fifty years ago, he might have been right.

RIPPER: But today, war is too important to be left to politicians.

RIPPER: They have neither the time, the training, nor the inclination for strategic thought.

RIPPER: I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, communist subversion,...

RIPPER: ...and the international Communist conspiracy...

RIPPER: sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.

"Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb"

Words by Terry Southern, Peter George and Stanley Kubrick

Pictures by Gilbert Taylor and Stanley Kubrick

"Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" is available on DVD from Sony Home Video.

* The EBS system continues to operate, requiring regular tests on all broadcast channels, to this day.

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