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Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

This infra-black comedy by Stanley Kubrick is widely considered to be one of the best film comedies of all time, if not one of the best films of all time. I’d seen parts of it in the past and agreed that it was indeed good. However – it was in this viewing that I discovered that it was good enough to overcome childhood trauma.

I will explain in a bit. Hang in there.

This razor-sharp satire of the Cold War kicks off when an Air Force General, Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), implements “Wing Attack Plan R” – an immediate air assault on the Soviet Union. Part of the order involves a total shutdown of the base and the confiscation of all personal radios, a task he leaves up to his executive officer Captain Mandrake (Peter Sellers), a visiting RAF officer. Mandrake happens to turn on one such radio and is surprised to hear not a breaking news bulletin, but a routine music broadcast. Alarmed, he rushes to Ripper’s office – only to discover that Ripper has had a psychotic break and has called for the attack in response to some half-baked conspiracy theories about fluoridation in water.

But Ripper’s plan is underway, and dozens of Air Force bombers are now speeding toward their various targets. Word very quickly reaches the Pentagon, where General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) breaks it to President Merkin Muffley (also Peter Sellers) that “Plan R” was only intended to be a last-ditch retaliatory attack, granting senior officers the power of command only if all other superior officers had been killed in earlier missile strikes. And, as such, part of the plan involves the bombers screening out all further communication unless it carried a three-letter code, one known only to the officer issuing the order. So President Muffley can’t override Ripper’s order. Muffley immediately orders the Army to storm the base and arrest Ripper, when they will force him to share the code. But just in case, after a brief consultation with Soviet ambassador Alexei de Sadeski (Peter Bull), Muffley also calls the Soviet Premier to break the news and offers him a list of the targets – authorizing the USSR to shoot down the bombers if the Pentagon is unable to sort things out in time.

But Sadeski brings up another complication – the USSR has just finished building a “doomsday device” which will automatically detonate if even just one U.S. missile reaches its target. The resulting nuclear fallout would contaminate the entire Earth for 93 years. Muffley and Turgidson are dubious – they haven’t heard anything about it – but Muffley’s science officer, the enigmatic Dr. Strangelove (also Peter Sellers), confirms that such a thing is indeed possible; in fact, he had been working on a similar plan for the United States. Muffley re-iterates to the Soviet Premier that the USSR can go ahead and shoot down any of the U.S. Bombers, since four of them are starting to get kinda close to their targets. The Soviets manage to shoot down three – the fourth is only damaged.

However – during the chaos, Mandrake has managed to figure out Ripper’s three-letter code and alerts the Pentagon. And it works! All bombers start returning to their base – except for the damaged plane, which suffered a radio short. So Major T. J. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) is still heading towards a Siberian ICBM site, prepared to complete his mission.

…So, everything about this film is ridiculous in the best possible way, and some of the best parts were nearly accidental. Sellers’ triple-casting was actually a studio idea – he’d played multiple roles in Kubrick’s Lolita, and the executives at Columbia Pictures felt this was a major part of that film’s success. I admit it’s an odd conclusion, but somehow the suits were on to something; Kubrick had already told Sellers he could ad-lib some lines, and three roles just gave him three chances to ad-lib.

Incredibly, Sellers was supposed to play four roles – along with Strangelove, Mandrake and Muffley, he was also supposed to play Major Kong, pilot of the rogue bomber. But Sellers injured his ankle before they were to shoot all the scenes with Kong and had to drop out. The part was written as a sort of “John Wayne type”, so Kubrick first offered the role to Wayne, and then to Bonanza star Dan Blocker – both of whom said no (Blocker’s agent said he thought the script was “too pinko“). Slim Pickens was hired on such short notice that they had to pause while Pickens secured his U.S. Passport (filming was taking place in England, and Pickens had never left the US).

Kubrick also stacked the deck a bit for Pickens – he only gave Pickens the script to Kong’s scenes, and never told him that the film was a comedy, so Pickens played everything absolutely straight – even the moment when Kong trades his pilot’s helmet for a cowboy hat was 100% serious. James Earl Jones, who made his film debut as Kong’s bombadier, recalled later that Pickens turned up on set with a cowboy hat and fringed jacket, prompting one stagehand to remark that “he’s arrived in costume!” unaware that this was how Pickens dressed all the time. Kubrick also played a similar trick on George C. Scott – asking him to do some larger-than-life takes of each scene “for practice”, as a warm-up before the more restrained takes Scott preferred. But – to Scott’s chagrin, Kubrick used the “warmup” takes in the film. Scott was angry enough to swear never to work with Kubrick again – but honestly, Kubrick was right. Turgidson’s bluster and bravado absolutely makes his scenes.

And that’s just the casting. Everything else about this film just works – the ridiculous trigger for Ripper’s breakdown, the inane standoff Mandrake has with a skeptical Army colonel, the one-sided conversation Muffley has with a clearly inebriated Soviet Premier, Turgidson’s drive to outdo the Soviets at every possible turn, Kong’s monomaniacal commitment to his mission. Even the music is spot-on – the recurring use of the Battle Hymn Of The Republic scoring Kong’s scenes, or the whole film ending with the sentimental Vera Lynn hit “We’ll Meet Again”, set to footage of nuclear explosions.

And that’s what I meant by the childhood trauma. Back when I reviewed Animal Farm, I mentioned that one characteristic of “Generation X” was a childhood spent fully aware of the looming threat of nuclear war. I first learned about the nuclear threat by accident at the age of nine – too young to understand the politics involved. The only bit I understood was that there were these really big bombs somewhere that could blow up everyone in the whole world, and they could go off any minute. I was still young enough to be slightly scared of the dark, and for a full year, instead of imagining that the monster under the bed was a big scaley beast, I thought a mushroom cloud was lurking there. Getting older only made things worse, especially after the broadcast of some made-for-TV specials in the 1980s about “what dropping the Bomb would be like”. For a good ten years, from the mid-1980s up until the late 1990s, I had unbelievably vivid recurring nightmares about nuclear war.

Those kinds of “what-ifs” actually started in the 1960s, and I’ve been wondering how I would handle revisiting images that scared me so when I was nine. But the rest of Strangelove was so funny, the satire so pointed and the performances so perfect, that I found myself laughing more than cringing, my childhood trauma averted.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Marnie (1964)

So, this has some parts that didn’t age well.

Tippi Hedren is our lead as “Marnie”, a con artist and corporate criminal. Her M.O. is clever enough – disguise herself, move to a small city and apply for a boring secretarial/bookkeeping job. Explain away the lack of references with a sob story about being a recent widow who’s got to fend for herself. Land the job, and fade into the wallpaper along with the rest of the secretarial pool. Linger around long enough to learn how to access the company safe – then stay late one night, empty the safe out, and skip town.

It’s been working out okay for her – she’s able to care for an elderly mother in Baltimore (Louise Latham), and it keeps her solvent. She’s a loner by default, but she’s got an aversion to sex anyway, so it works out. But then she lands a job in Philadelphia, working for a publishing company owned by one Mark Rutland (Sean Connery), and Rutland takes a romantic shine to her. And when Marnie finally hits the Rutland Co. safe, Mark catches her red-handed; but instead of turning her in, he blackmails her into marrying him in exchange for keeping her secret. And at one point in their “honeymoon”, Mark gets sick of her protestations that she “doesn’t like to be touched” and forces himself on her.

Now, there’s actually a decent mystery the film goes on to solve; why Marnie is compelled to steal, why her mother seems distant towards her, why Marnie has aversions to sex as well as to the color red or to thunder. But that moment of marital rape is where Hitchcock lost me, especially when Mark doesn’t really seem to regret his actions. Marnie even tries to kill herself afterward, but Mark saves her in the nick of time; even that doesn’t seem to cause him any remorse. Instead, he treats the whole thing as proof that Marnie needs some kind of psychological help to “overcome” her “sexual problem”.

That honeymoon rape is a mighty big thing for Hitchcock to just hand-wave away, even if you play the “but times were different then” card. It’s traumatizing enough for Marnie that she tries to kill herself, but by the end of the film she is clinging to Mark and asking him to help support her while she “recovers”. Even more troubling – one of the film’s screenwriters, when adapting it from the novel on which it was based, told Hitchcock that this particular scene should be cut; but Hitchcock disagreed, asserting that this scene “was the whole point”. He then went on to fire that particular screenwriter for even raising such a complaint.


I’ll admit I was already disinclined towards this film, since there are allegations that Hitchcock sexually harassed Hedren while filming this and The Birds. Hitchcock’s actions might sound eerily familiar to anyone following Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assault trials – Hitchcock persistently pestered Hedren to go out with him, tried to corner her alone a lot, and a couple times even tried to force her. When she continued to refuse him, Hitchcock finally blacklisted her – he even stopped the studio from putting Hedren’s name in for an Oscar consideration – and her career took a major hit as a result. I nevertheless tried giving it a fair shot – only to see that Hitchcock actually went a bit further than Weinstein, and depicted a sexual assault in the film itself, saying that “it was the whole point”.

Yeah, I’ll bet it was, Hitch.

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The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

I need to begin this review with an apologetic first: I swear to you all, I am not a cynic. I have been in love, I have also been in the kind of swept-off-your-feet love where the world is bedecked with stardust and where unlikely coincidences seem to point to your partner being fated for you. Those loves didn’t last, but often they ended with my beloveds and I growing into solid friendships instead.

I say all that because from the look of things, I’m going to be one of the very few people in the world who isn’t going to swoon over this as a beloved and poignant movie about First Love And Its Tragic End, and am instead going to grump about how it’s taken a run-of-the-mill plot and dressed it up in music and pretty colors in an effort to distract me. And I don’t like that.

The run-of-the-mill plot here is that of young lovers who pledge eternal fidelity before parting, only for life to intrude, alas. Catherine Deneuve is “Genevieve”, daughter of a widowed shopkeeper in the quiet French town of Cherbourg; her sweetie is Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), an auto mechanic living with his sickly aunt. They sneak out together whenever Guy can get away from his aunt or Genevieve can get free of her mother’s umbrella shop; but right when Guy proposes and Genevieve finally gets the nerve to tell her mother about him, Guy is drafted into serving in the war in Algeria. They postpone things until Guy comes back, pledging earnestly to write every day and to wait for each other – and then, big surprise, Guy doesn’t write often and Genevieve meets someone else and then so does Guy when he gets home and they go on to marry other people, the end.

Now you see why I was so defensive about sounding cynical. But try as I might, I simply could not get past the fact that I have seen this story a good many times before – once even here on this list, with Splendor In The Grass. This story has its own trope over on the TV Tropes web site, for pity’s sake. And while the music is empirically lovely, and the world of Genevieve and Guy brightly-colored, I kept feeling like it was there to distract me from the run-of-the-mill plot, and that just made things worse. Not that I hated the film, mind you – more like, I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about and why this retelling of this old chestnut was so different from all the other times.

One moment did get a chuckle out of me – the fellow Genevieve ultimately does marry is Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), whom we last saw in the film Lola – and he even tells Genevieve about his unrequited love for Lola in one scene, confirming that it is indeed the same character.

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Red Desert (1964)

I’m starting to think I’m not really into Antonioni. I acknowledge his skill just fine, and sometimes he’s captured some amazing things with subtext; but then there are times when he seems to get caught up in how things look, to the detriment of the rest of the film.

Like this film, for instance. Red Desert was Antonioni’s first foray into color film – and the look of things is gorgeous. Most of the action takes place in and around a petrochemical plant run by Ugo (Carlo Chianetti), with much of the landscape bathed in dull shades of grey punctuated by the shocking red of gas pipes, the sickly green of polluted waste water, and the acid yellow of toxic smoke. Most of the workers in the plant are also in greys and browns, and Ugo himself is in a conservative suit most of the time. Not so his wife Giuliana (Monica Vitti), a nervous woman who dresses in vivid colors in an effort to shake herself out of a weirdly persistent depressive state.

Giuliana catches the eye of Ugo’s friend Corrado (Richard Harris), visiting to recruit men for a business venture of his own. Ugo explains that Giuliana recently was in a car crash, that’s why she’s still a bit skittish. But as Corrado gets to know Giuliana – the pair bonding over a mutual dissatisfaction with modern life – he comes to suspect whether that “car crash” was the accident Ugo says it was.

And nothing else really…happens.

Now, for Antonioni this kind of existential ennui is usually kind of the point. Giuliana feels out of touch with modern life, the way that Lidia did in La Notte or Claudia did in L’Avventura. But in those earlier films, I had more of a sense where that disconnect came from, whereas here….not so much. I certainly see its effects – there’s a stunning shot partway through the film, as Giuliana gets spooked on an outing with Ugo and some other friends and starts for the car, urging the others to join her and head home. But when she looks back at them, they’re all standing still, looking at her with bafflement, as a thick fog from the nearby ocean rolls in and obscures them all one by one.

Antonioni clearly took great care with how this film would look. But I am afraid that the story itself suffered a bit, and so the whole film didn’t really gel for me.