I miss Peter Sellers. As the sinister Nazi scientist with the out-of-control mechanical arm, he dominates this picture. So it’s a surprise to realize that the character of Dr. Strangelove is only onscreen for a few scenes. He is called upon once in the first half of the picture to explain the feasibility of the Doomsday Machine, but the famous gags where his arm gives a Nazi salute and later tries to strangle him don’t occur till the very end.
Sellers also played the upper-crust British officer who is second-in-command to the psychotic Air Force Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper, who launches the nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. And he played the solid midwestern American President Merkin Muffley. The scene where Muffley apologizes to the drunken Soviet Premier Dmitri Kisov over the telephone is one of my favorite monologues:
“Now then, Dmitri, you know how we’ve always talked about the possibility of something going wrong with the Bomb… The *Bomb*, Dmitri… The *hydrogen* bomb!… Well now, what happened is… ahm… one of our base commanders, he had a sort of… well, he went a little funny in the head… you know… just a little… funny. And, ah… he went and did a silly thing… Well, I’ll tell you what he did. He ordered his planes… to attack your country… Ah… Well, let me finish, Dmitri… Let me finish, Dmitri… Well listen, how do you think I feel about it?… Can you *imagine* how I feel about it, Dmitri?… Why do you think I’m calling you? Just to say hello?… *Of course* I like to speak to you!… *Of course* I like to say hello!… Not now, but anytime, Dmitri.”
Apparently Sellers improvised much of his dialogue. But the script of “Dr. Strangelove” is brilliant all-around. George C. Scott’s trigger-happy General “Buck” Turgidson, assuring the President that a first-strike wouldn’t kill more than “ten to twenty million tops, depending on the breaks.” He chews Juicy Fruit gum in times of stress, and the debate in the war room is plenty stressful. Then there’s General Ripper’s certainty that he and he alone stands between the Communists and their plot to contaminate the water supply of the free world through fluoridation, “… to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.”
But the film belongs to Sellers’ Strangelove. A mad gleam comes into his eye as he embellishes his plan to preserve the human species in deep mineshafts. “Naturally, they would breed prodigiously, eh? There would be much time, and little to do.” By the time he’s worked himself up to imagining the type of women who would be required to stimulate the men to perform their prodigious service for the future of the human race, it’s clear that he’s completely bonkers.
And yet, every time I heard Slim Pickens mispronounce “nuclear” in that Texas twang of his, I had to remind myself that this film was a satire — a satire for pete’s sake! — from 1964.