Two films that form a strange sort of bookend pair: Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe. Both are excellent, among my favorites, and both were released in 1964 by the same studio, but alas for Fail Safe (Lumet), Strangelove’s Kubrick succeeded in getting his released first, so Fail Safe flopped. Can you believe it – some critics reported that people laughed during the screenings – they thought it was another comedy! That’s how powerful Kubrick’s film was.
There are many odd parallels between the two that any fan will know: Bucky Turgidson and “Blackie.” Strangelove in a wheelchair, the Secy. of Defense on crutches. The pilots who loose sight of the “human factor.” But what I like, is the treatment of sex-death in the two.
Strangelove is, himself, a weird, perverted sex fiend or impotent monster, and Bucky is his masculine opposite. Not too bright, all muscle and action. In the still we have here – must be a studio shot because it’s in color – he’s with the only woman in the entire film, his secretary. He has to break off their tryst to go to the war room, but assures her that he’ll be back before she can say “blast off!” I wonder what Curtis LeMay thought of this role? He is so fixated on his machismo, that he practically roots for the US pilots to get through and destroy Moscow, setting off the Doomsday machine.
Matthau plays Dr.Groeteschele, an amalgam of Herman Kahn and Kissinger, the great minds who were busy thinking the unthinkable. As he holds forth at a party about how nuclear war is winnable, and must be won, Ilsa Wolfe (Nancy Berg), the girl who loves death, looks on adoringly. Her fangs drool for him. She gets him to drive her…not home, just about, giving him directions with a languid, bored tone. She stops his driving, and after he psychoanalyzes her and tells her just how sick she is for getting an erotic thrill out of mass murder by nuclear destruction, she makes her move. Here’s a bit of the dialog:
Ilsa: …you know there won’t be any survivors.
Dr. G: Not many.
-None at all. That’s the beauty of it.
-I’ve heard nuclear war called a lot of things, but never beautiful.
-People are afraid to call it that, but that’s what they feel.
-The beauty of death?
-Don’t patronize me! What else but that are you selling, Professor? We all know we’re going to die…but you make a marvelous game out of it that includes the whole world.You make it seem possible.
– It is possible, even probable.
-You make death an entertainment… something that can be played in a living room…
-I am the joker. I make death into a game for people like you to get excited about. I watched you tonight. You’d love making it possible. You’d love pressing that button. What a thrill that would be. Knowing you have to die…to have the power to take everyone else with you… the mob of them with their plans, their little hopes… born to be murdered and turning away from it…closing their eyes to it. You could be the one to make it true, do it to them. But you’re afraid…so you look for the thrill someplace else. And who better than a man who isn’t afraid?
She wipes her lipstick off with his handkerchief and reaches for him. He slaps her hard, and says, “I’m not your kind!”
Maybe he’s worse. He really is a salesman, a huckster of mass death. The sequence is a marvelous prelude to the film noir, thriller ambience that is the rest of the film, a really taut suspenseful drama about nuclear systems gone haywire. As with Kubrick, Lumet intuits that there is something dark, sick, and intensely human at the core of all this pseudo-intellectual calculation about kill ratios, delivery rates, and fail safe systems. (J. R. Oppenheimer, “Father of the Atomic Bomb” derided it as nonsense, rationalizations for genocide.) This is one of the most perverse and evil scenes I have ever seen in a film, and it is the obverse of Kubrick’s wild, black humor.
Does anyone remember the Cold War these days? Those happy times, wondering if the end of the world was truly around the corner, not just the gleam in a fundamentalist’s eye? Thinking of moving to “non-target countries.” The reassuring logic of MAD, mutually assured destruction? Today, we have terrorism, but I don’t recall people being nearly so scared of nuclear war. Perhaps it was because our leaders and our intellectuals, some of them, told us it was what we had to do.