Category Archives: Cold War

Happy end of the world: Top 15 Anti-Nuke Films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 31, 2021)

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“The atomic bomb made the prospect of future war unendurable. It has led us up those last few steps to the mountain pass; and beyond there is a different country.”

-J. Robert Oppenheimer

This coming Friday marks the 76th anniversary of mankind’s entry into that “different country”.  So what have we learned since 8:15am, August 6, 1945-if anything? Well, we’ve tried to harness the power of the atom for “good”, however, as has been demonstrated repeatedly, that’s not working out so well (Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima, et al).

Also, there are enough stockpiled weapons of mass destruction to knock Planet Earth off its axis, and we have no guarantees that some nut job, whether enabled by the powers vested in him by the state, or the voices in his head (doesn’t really matter-end result’s the same) won’t be in a position at some point in the future to let one or two or a hundred rip. Hopefully, cool heads and diplomacy will continue to keep us above ground and rad-free.

What with the rapidly-mutating COVID-19 virus, record heat waves in the U.S., and flooding in Europe I’d all but forgotten that every January, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists gives the human race its annual physical, to determine the official time on the Doomsday Clock. In January of 2020, they determined that it was “100 seconds to Midnight” (those seem like such carefree and happy days now…when our only worry was complete nuclear annihilation).

So how are we doing now?

Humanity continues to suffer as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads around the world. In 2020 alone, this novel disease killed 1.7 million people and sickened at least 70 million more. The pandemic revealed just how unprepared and unwilling countries and the international system are to handle global emergencies properly. In this time of genuine crisis, governments too often abdicated responsibility, ignored scientific advice, did not cooperate or communicate effectively, and consequently failed to protect the health and welfare of their citizens.

As a result, many hundreds of thousands of human beings died needlessly.

Though lethal on a massive scale, this particular pandemic is not an existential threat. Its consequences are grave and will be lasting. But COVID-19 will not obliterate civilization, and we expect the disease to recede eventually. Still, the pandemic serves as a historic wake-up call, a vivid illustration that national governments and international organizations are unprepared to manage nuclear weapons and climate change, which currently pose existential threats to humanity, or the other dangers—including more virulent pandemics and next-generation warfare—that could threaten civilization in the near future. […]

As we noted in our last Doomsday Clock statement, the existential threats of nuclear weapons and climate change have intensified in recent years because of a threat multiplier: the continuing corruption of the information ecosphere on which democracy and public decision-making depend. Here, again, the COVID-19 pandemic is a wake-up call. False and misleading information disseminated over the internet—including misrepresentation of COVID-19’s seriousness, promotion of false cures, and politicization of low-cost protective measures such as face masks—created social chaos in many countries and led to unnecessary death. This wanton disregard for science and the large-scale embrace of conspiratorial nonsense—often driven by political figures and partisan media—undermined the ability of responsible national and global leaders to protect the security of their citizens. […]

C’mon guys…can you at least throw us a bone, here…?

Considered by themselves, these negative events in the nuclear, climate change, and disinformation arenas might justify moving the clock closer to midnight. But amid the gloom, we see some positive developments. The election of a US president who acknowledges climate change as a profound threat and supports international cooperation and science-based policy puts the world on a better footing to address global problems. For example, the United States has already announced it is rejoining the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Biden administration has offered to extend the New START arms control agreement with Russia for five years. In the context of a post-pandemic return to relative stability, more such demonstrations of renewed interest in and respect for science and multilateral cooperation could create the basis for a safer and saner world.

Because these developments have not yet yielded substantive progress toward a safer world, they are not sufficient to move the Clock away from midnight. But they are positive and do weigh against the profound dangers of institutional decay, science denialism, aggressive nuclear postures, and disinformation campaigns discussed in our 2020 statement. The members of the Science and Security Board therefore set the Doomsday Clock at 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it has ever been to civilization-ending apocalypse and the same time we set in 2020. It is deeply unfortunate that the global response to the pandemic over the past year has explicitly validated many of the concerns we have voiced for decades.

OK. Some cautious optimism. But nuclear proliferation itself is so last century…right?

In the past year, countries with nuclear weapons continued to spend vast sums on nuclear modernization programs, even as they allowed proven risk-reduction achievements in arms control and diplomacy to wither or die. Nuclear weapons and weapons-delivery platforms capable of carrying either nuclear or conventional warheads continued to proliferate, while destabilizing “advances” in the space and cyber realms, in hypersonic missiles, and in missile defenses continued. Governments in the United States, Russia, and other countries appear to consider nuclear weapons more-and-more usable, increasing the risks of their actual use. There continues to be an extraordinary disregard for the potential of an accidental nuclear war, even as well-documented examples of frighteningly close calls have emerged.

Oh, crap. Anyway…with those happy thoughts in mind, here are my picks for the top 15 (still) cautionary films to watch before we all go together (when we go). Uh…enjoy?

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The Atomic Café – Whoopee, we’re all gonna die! But along the way, we might as well have a few laughs. That seems to be the impetus behind this 1982 collection of cleverly reassembled footage culled from U.S. government propaganda shorts from the Cold War era (Mk 1), originally designed to educate the public about how to “survive” a nuclear attack (all you need to do is get under a desk…everyone knows that!).

In addition to the Civil Defense campaigns (which include the classic “duck and cover” tutorials) the filmmakers have also drawn from a rich vein of military training films, which reduce the possible effects of a nuclear strike to something akin to a barrage from, oh I don’t know- a really big field howitzer. Harrowing, yet perversely entertaining. Written and directed by Jayne Loader, Pierce Rafferty and Kevin Rafferty (Kevin went on to co-direct the similarly constructed 1999 doc, The Last Cigarette, a take down of the tobacco industry).

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Black Rain– For obvious reasons, there have been a fair amount of postwar Japanese films dealing with the subject of nuclear destruction and its aftermath. Some take an oblique approach, like Gojira or I Live in Fear. Other films, like the documentary Children of Hiroshima and the anime Barefoot Gen deal directly with survivors (who are referred to in Japan as the hibakusha).

One of the most affecting hibakusha films I’ve seen is Shomei Imamura’s 1989 drama Black Rain (not to be confused with the 1989 Hollywood crime thriller of the same title that is also set in Japan). It’s a simple tale of three Hiroshima survivors: an elderly couple and their niece, whose scars run much deeper than physical. The narrative is sparse, yet contains more layers than an onion (especially considering the complexities of Japanese society). Interestingly, Imamura injects a polemic which points an accusatory finger in an unexpected direction.

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The Day after Trinity– This absorbing film about the Manhattan Project and its subsequent fallout (historical, political and existential) is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen. At its center, it is a profile of project leader J. Robert Oppenheimer, whose moment of professional triumph (the successful test of the world’s first atomic bomb, three weeks before Hiroshima) also brought him an unnerving precognition about the horror that he and his fellow physicists had enabled the military machine to unleash.

Oppenheimer’s journey from “father of the atomic bomb” to anti-nuke activist (and having his life destroyed by the post-war Red hysteria) is a tragic tale of Shakespearean proportion. Two recommended companion pieces: Roland Joffe’s 1989 drama Fat Man and Little Boy, about the working relationship between Oppenheimer (Dwight Schultz) and military director of the Manhattan Project, General Leslie Groves (Paul Newman); and an outstanding 1980 BBC miniseries called Oppenheimer (starring Sam Waterston).

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Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb- “Mein fuehrer! I can walk!” Although we have yet to experience the global thermonuclear annihilation that ensues following the wheelchair-bound Dr. Strangelove’s joyous (if short-lived) epiphany, so many other depictions in Stanley Kubrick’s seriocomic masterpiece about the tendency for those in power to eventually rise to their own level of incompetence have since come to pass, that you wonder why the filmmakers even bothered to make it all up.

It’s the one about an American military base commander who goes a little funny in the head (you know…”funny”) and sort of launches a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Hilarity and oblivion ensues. And what a cast: Peter Sellers (as three characters), George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn, James Earl Jones and Peter Bull. There are so many great quotes, that you might as well bracket the entire screenplay (by Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter George) with quotation marks.

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Fail-SafeDr. Strangelove…without the laughs. This no-nonsense 1964 thriller from the late great director Sidney Lumet takes a more clinical look at how a wild card scenario (in this case, a simple hardware malfunction) could ultimately trigger a nuclear showdown between the Americans and the Russians.

Talky and a bit stagey; but riveting nonetheless thanks to Lumet’s skillful  knack for bringing out the best in his actors. Walter Bernstein’s intelligent screenplay (with uncredited assistance from Peter George, who also co-scripted Dr. Strangelove) and a superb cast that includes Henry Fonda (a commanding performance, literally and figuratively), Walter Matthau, Larry Hagman, and Fritz Weaver.

There’s no fighting in this war room (aside from one minor scuffle), but there is an almost unbearable amount of tension and suspense. The final scene is chilling and unforgettable.

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I Live in Fear-This 1955 Akira Kurosawa film is one of the great director’s most overlooked efforts. It’s a melodrama concerning an aging foundry owner (Toshiro Mifune, unrecognizable in Coke-bottle glasses and silver-frosted pomade) who literally “lives in fear” of the H-bomb. Convinced that South America would be the “safest” place on Earth from radioactive fallout, he tries to sway his wife and grown children to pull up stakes and resettle on a farm in Brazil.

His children, who have families of their own and rely on their father’s factory for income, are not so hot on that idea. They take him to family court and have him declared incompetent. This sends Mifune spiraling into madness. Or are his fears really so “crazy”? It is one of Mifune’s most powerful and moving performances. Kurosawa instills shades of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” into the narrative (a well he would draw from again in his 1985 film Ran).

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Ladybug, Ladybug– I didn’t have an opportunity to see this chilling 1963 drama until 2017, which is when Turner Classic Movies presented their premiere showing (to my knowledge, it has never been available in a home video format). The film marked the second collaboration between husband-and-wife creative team of writer Eleanor Perry and director Frank Perry (The Swimmer, Last Summer, Diary of a Mad Housewife).

Based on an incident that occurred during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the story centers on how students and staff of a rural school react to a Civil Defense alert indicating an imminent nuclear strike. While there are indications that it could be a false alarm, the principal sends the children home early. As teachers and students stroll through the relatively peaceful countryside, fears and anxieties come to the fore. Naturalistic performances bring the film’s cautionary message all too close to home.

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Miracle Mile- Depending on your worldview, this is either an “end of the world” film for romantics, or the perfect date movie for fatalists. Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham give winning performances as a musician and a waitress who Meet Cute at L.A.’s La Brea Tar Pits museum. But before they can hook up for their first date, Edwards stumbles onto a fairly reliable tip that L.A. is about to get hosed…in a major way.

The resulting “countdown” scenario is a genuine, edge-of-your seat nail-biter. In fact, this modestly budgeted, 90-minute sleeper offers more heart-pounding excitement (and much more believable characters) than any bloated Hollywood disaster epic from the likes of a Michael Bay or a Roland Emmerich. Writer-director Steve De Jarnatt stopped doing feature films after this 1988 gem (his only other feature was the sci-fi cult favorite Cherry 2000).

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One Night Stand – An early effort from director John Duigan (Winter of Our Dreams, The Year My Voice Broke, Flirting, Sirens, etc.). This 1984 sleeper is a worthwhile entry amidst the flurry of nuclear paranoia-themed movies that proliferated throughout the Reagan era (Marshall Brickman’s The Manhattan Project, John Badham’s War Games, et. al.)

Four young people (three Australians and an American sailor who has jumped ship) get holed up in an otherwise empty Sydney Opera House on the eve of escalating nuclear tension between the superpowers in Eastern Europe. In a concerted effort to deflect their collective anxiety over increasingly ominous news bulletins droning on from the radio, they find creative ways to keep their spirits up.

The film is uneven at times, but Duigan capably juggles this mashup of romantic comedy, apocalyptic thriller and anti-war statement. There are several striking set pieces; particularly an eerily affecting scene where the quartet watch Fritz Langs’s Metropolis as the Easybeats hit “Friday on My Mind” is juxtaposed over its orchestral score. Midnight Oil performs in a scene where the two women attend a concert. The bittersweet denouement (in an underground tube station) is quite powerful.

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Special Bulletin– This outstanding 1983 made-for-TV movie has been overshadowed by the nuclear nightmare-themed TV movie The Day After, which aired the same year (I’m sure I will be raked over the coals by some readers for not including the aforementioned on this list, but frankly I always thought it was too melodramatic and vastly over-praised).

Directed by Edward Zwick and written by Marshall Herskovitz (the same creative team behind thirtysomething), Special Bulletin is framed as a “live” television broadcast, with local news anchors and reporters interrupting regular programming to cover a breaking story.

A domestic terrorist group has seized a docked tugboat in Charleston Harbor. A reporter relays their demand: If every nuclear triggering device stored at the nearby U.S. Naval base isn’t delivered to them by a specified time, they will detonate their own homemade nuclear device (equal in power to the bomb dropped on Nagasaki). The original airing apparently panicked more than a few South Carolinian viewers (a la Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938). Riveting and chilling. Nominated for 6 Emmys, it took home 4.

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Testament- Originally an American Playhouse presentation, this film (with a screenplay adapted by John Sacred Young from a story by Carol Amen) was released to theaters and garnered a well-deserved Best Actress nomination for Jane Alexander. Director Lynne Littman takes a low key approach, but pulls no punches; I think this is what gives her film’s anti-nuke message more teeth and makes its scenario more relatable than Stanley Kramer’s similarly-framed but more sanitized and preachy 1959 drama On the Beach.

Alexander, her husband (William DeVane) and three kids live in sleepy Hamlin, California, where afternoon cartoons are interrupted by a news flash that nuclear explosions have occurred in New York. Then there is a flash of a different kind when nearby San Francisco (where DeVane has gone on a business trip) receives a direct strike.

There is no exposition on the political climate that precipitates the attacks; this is a wise decision, as it puts the focus on the humanistic message of the film. All of the post-nuke horrors ensue, but they are presented sans the melodrama that informs many entries in the genre. The fact that the nightmarish scenario unfolds so deliberately, and amidst such everyday suburban banality, is what makes it very difficult to shake off.

As the children (and adults) of Hamlin succumb to the inevitable scourge of radiation sickness and steadily “disappear”, like the children of the ‘fairy tale’ Hamlin, you are left haunted by the final line of the school production of “The Pied Piper” glimpsed earlier in the film… “Your children are not dead. They will return when the world deserves them.”

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Thirteen Days– I had a block against seeing this 2000 release about the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, for several reasons. For one, director Roger Donaldson’s uneven output (for every Smash Palace or No Way Out, he’s got a Species or a Cocktail). I also couldn’t get past “Kevin Costner? In another movie about JFK?” Also, I felt the outstanding 1974 TV film, The Missiles of October (which I recommend) would be hard to top. But I was pleasantly surprised to find it to be one of Donaldson’s better films.

Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp make a very credible JFK and RFK, respectively. The film works as a political thriller, yet it is also intimate and moving at times (especially in the scenes between JFK and RFK). Costner provides the “fly on the wall” perspective as Kennedy insider Kenny O’Donnell. Costner gives a compassionate performance; on the downside he has a tin ear for dialects (that Hahvad Yahd brogue comes and goes of its own free will).

According to the Internet Movie Database, this was the first film screened at the White House by George and Laura Bush in 2001. Knowing this now…I don’t know whether to laugh or cry myself to sleep.

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The War Game / Threads– Out of all of the selections on this list, these two British TV productions are the grimmest and most sobering “nuclear nightmare” films of them all.

Writer-director Peter Watkins’ 1965 docudrama, The War Game was initially produced for television, but was deemed too shocking and disconcerting for the small screen by the BBC. It was mothballed until picked up for theatrical distribution, which snagged it an Oscar for Best Documentary in 1967. Watkins envisions the aftermath of a nuke attack on London, and pulls no punches. Very ahead of its time, and it still packs quite a wallop.

The similarly stark and affecting nuclear nightmare drama  Threads debuted on the BBC in 1984, later airing in the U.S. on TBS. Director Mick Jackson delivers an uncompromising realism that makes The Day After (the U.S. TV film from the previous year) look like a Teletubbies episode. It’s a speculative narrative that takes a medium sized city (Sheffield) and depicts what would likely happen to its populace during and after a nuclear strike, in graphic detail.

Both  productions make it clear that, while they are dramatizations, the intent is not to “entertain” you in any sense of the word. The message is simple and direct-nothing good comes out of a nuclear conflict. It’s a living, breathing Hell for all concerned-and anyone “lucky” enough to survive will soon wish they were dead.

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When the Wind Blows– This animated 1986 U.K. film was adapted by director Jimmy Murakami from Raymond Brigg’s eponymous graphic novel. It is a simple yet affecting story about an aging couple (wonderfully voiced by venerable British thespians Sir John Mills and Dame Peggy Ashcroft) who live in a cozy cottage nestled in the bucolic English countryside. Unfortunately, an escalating conflict in another part of the world is about to go global and shatter their quiet lives.

Very similar in tone to Testament (another film on this list), in its sense of intimacy amidst slowly unfolding mass horror. Haunting, moving, and beautifully animated, with a combination of traditional cell and stop-motion techniques. The soundtrack features music by David Bowie, Roger Waters, and Squeeze.

Blu-ray reissue: Five (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 17, 2021)

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Five (Imprint Films; region-free)

Writer-director Arch Oboler’s 1951 film is rarely mentioned in the same breath as “seminal” Cold War era nuclear survivor dramas like On the Beach, Panic in the Year Zero, or The World, the Flesh, and the Devil-but it predates them all by at least a decade. Despite its low budget, no-name cast and relative obscurity, Five is Oboler’s magnum opus (especially compared to the rest of his oeuvre, which is largely comprised of psychotronic fare like Bwana Devil, The Twonky, and The Bubble).

The setup is familiar; a handful of survivors from disparate sociopolitical and ethnic backgrounds find each other after a nuclear holocaust. They end up living together in an abandoned Frank Lloyd Wright house on a California mountaintop. It doesn’t take long for the joy of newfound camaraderie and spirit of egalitarianism to wane, as the story becomes a cautionary parable a la Animal Farm.

When I re-watched the film recently, I was surprised at how relevant certain elements are to our current political climate (particularly when one survivor outs himself as a fascistic white supremacist-which begs comparisons to Hitchcock’s Lifeboat). Oboler’s choice of exterior locales is imaginative (e.g., a haunting scene that features characters wandering through a devastated cityscape is quite effective and belies the modest $75,000 budget).

Image and sound on the Imprint Films Blu-ray displays a marked improvement over the Sony Pictures DVD. The new commentary track with film critic Glenn Erickson and Oboler expert Matthew Rovner is packed with insightful observations and fascinating trivia about the making of the film. There is also an engaging 25-minute video essay by journalist and film critic Kim Newman, who sheds light on Oboler’s earlier career producing radio dramas in the 1940s. A must-have for the “post-apocalyptic” completist.

Blu-ray reissue: Funeral in Berlin (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 12, 2020)

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Funeral in Berlin – Paramount

While I enjoy the entire series, this is my favorite entry in the film trilogy (preceded by The Ipcress File and followed by The Billion Dollar Brain) that starred Michael Caine as British spy “Harry Palmer” (based on a nameless protagonist created by prolific spy novelist and non-fiction writer Len Deighton).

Caine’s Palmer is a buttoned-down antithesis of James Bond. Oh, he has the trade craft and the cold efficiency, but no flashy clothes, cars or gadgets, no adventures in exotic locales. However, he is not buttoned-down in his attitude. He’s cheeky, cynical, and anti-authoritarian to a fault (e.g. 007 remains attuned that he ultimately serves at Her Majesty’s pleasure, whereas Harry may be more inclined to scoff at aristocracy).

In this installment (directed by Guy Hamilton and adapted from Deighton’s eponymous novel by Evan Jones), Palmer is ostensibly sent to Berlin to bring a Communist defector in from the cold but becomes embroiled in a byzantine web of international intrigue and inter-agency duplicity.

You need to pay close attention, but that’s what makes it fun and keeps you guessing until the end. Similar (but superior) to the Cold War thriller The Defector, which came out the same year and featured Montgomery Clift (in his final performance).

Paramount’s Blu-ray touts a “1080p high-definition” transfer, which leaves room for interpretation as to whether it has been restored. I can only compare it to the PAL-DVD edition I own-to which it displays a marked upgrade in image and sound. No extras, but that appears to be par for the course with Paramount. Still, it’s nice to have it on Blu-ray!

Conspiracy a go-go (slight return)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 21, 2020)

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Note: This Sunday marks 57 years since the JFK assassination, so I am re-posting this piece (from November 23, 2019) with revisions and additional material.

“Strength takes many forms, and the most obvious forms are not always the most significant. The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the Nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us. […]

If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. […]

We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth […] But democratic society — in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.”

President John F. Kennedy, from his Robert Frost tribute address (October 23, 1963)

“Where were you when Kennedy got shot?” has been a meme for anyone old enough to remember what happened that day in Dallas on November 22, 1963…56 years ago this past Friday. I was but a wee military brat, attending my second-grade class at a public school in Columbus, Ohio (my dad was stationed at nearby Fort Hayes). Our class was herded into the main gym for an impromptu all-school assembly. Someone (probably the principal) gave a brief address. It gets fuzzy from there; but I think that we either sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” or recited the Pledge of Allegiance, then got sent home early.

My 7-year-old mind could not grasp the profound sociopolitical impact of this tragedy; but I have come to understand it in the fullness of time. From my 2016 review of Jackie:

Understandably, the question of “why now?” could arise, to which I would reply (paraphrasing JFK) …why not? To be sure, Jacqueline Kennedy’s story has been well-covered in a myriad of documentaries and feature films; like The Beatles, there are very few (if any) mysteries about her life and legacy to uncover at this point. And not to mention that horrible, horrible day in Dallas…do we really need to pay $15 just to see the nightmare reenacted for the umpteenth time? (Spoiler alert: the President dies at the end).

I think that “we” do need to see this film, even if we know going in that there was no “happy ever-aftering” in this Camelot. It reminds us of a “brief, shining moment” when all seemed possible, opportunities were limitless, and everything was going to be all right, because Jack was our king and Jackie was our queen. So what if it was all kabuki, as the film implies; merely a dream, invented by “a great, tragic actress” to unite us in our sadness. Then it was a good dream, and I think we’ll find our Camelot again…someday.

Sadly, anyone who follows the current news cycle knows we’re still looking for Camelot.

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They will run you dizzy. They will pile falsehood on top of falsehood, until you can’t tell a lie from the truth – and you won’t even want to. That’s how the powerful keep their power. Don’t you read the papers?

From Winter Kills (screenplay by William Richert)

The Kennedy assassination ultimately precipitated a cottage industry of independent studies, papers, magazine articles, non-fiction books, novels, documentaries and feature films that riff on the plethora of conspiracy theories that continue to flourish to this day.

This is despite the fact few stones remain unturned…and there was that Warren Commission report released in 1964; an 888-page summation concluding JFK’s alleged murderer Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. This “conclusive” statement, of course only fueled more speculation that our government was not being completely ah…forthcoming.

At any rate (and speaking of anniversaries) 2019 marks the 40th anniversary of one of the more oddball conspiracy thrillers based on the JFK assassination…Winter Kills, which has just been reissued on Blu-ray by Kino-Lorber. Director William Richert adapted his screenplay from Richard Condon’s book (it’s worth noting that Condon also wrote the conspiracy thriller The Manchurian Candidate, which was adapted for the screen twice).

Jeff Bridges stars as the (non-political) half-brother of an assassinated president. After witnessing the deathbed confession of a man claiming to be a “second gunman”, he reluctantly gets drawn into a new investigation of his brother’s murder nearly 20 years after the matter was allegedly put to rest by the findings of the “Pickering Commission”.

John Huston chews the scenery as Bridges’ father (a larger-than-life character said to be loosely based on Joseph Kennedy Sr.). The cast includes Anthony Perkins, Eli Wallach, Sterling Hayden, Ralph Meeker, Toshiro Mifune, Richard Boone, and Elizabeth Taylor.

The film vacillates between genuine conspiracy thriller and a broad satire of other byzantine conspiracy thrillersbut is eminently watchable, thanks to an interesting cast and a screenplay that, despite ominous undercurrents, delivers a great deal of dark humor.

I own the 2003 Anchor Bay DVD, so I can attest that Kino’s 4K transfer is a definite upgrade; accentuating cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s exemplary lens work. Unfortunately, there are no new extras; but all bonus materials from Anchor Bay’s DVD have been ported over, including an entertaining commentary track by director Richert (the story behind the film’s production is nearly as over-the-top as the finished product).

Is Winter Kills essential viewing? It depends. If you like quirky 60s and 70s cinema, it’s one of the last hurrahs in a film cycle of arch, lightly political and broadly satirical all-star psychedelic train wrecks like The Loved One, The President’s Analyst, Skidoo, Candy and The Magic Christian. For “conspiracy-a-go-go” completists, it is a must-see.

Here are 9 more films that either deal directly with or have a notable link with the JFK conspiracy cult. And while you’re watching, keep President Kennedy’s observation in the back of your mind: “In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.”

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Suddenly – Lewis Allen’s taut 1954 crime thriller/film noir stars a surprisingly effective Frank Sinatra as the cold-blooded leader of a three-man hit team who are hired to assassinate the (unnamed) President during a scheduled whistle-stop at a sleepy California town. They commandeer a family’s home that affords the hit team a clear shot.

The film is primarily played as a hostage drama. It should be noted that in this case, the shooter’s motives are financial, not political (“Don’t hand me that politics jazz-that’s not my bag!” Sinatra snarls after he’s accused of being “an enemy agent” by one of his hostages). Richard Sale’s script also drops in a perfunctory nod or two to the then-contemporaneous McCarthy era (one hostage speculates that the hit men are “commies”).

That said, some aspects of the story are quite eerily prescient of President Kennedy’s assassination 9 years later; Sinatra’s character is an ex-military sharpshooter, zeroes down on his target from a high window, and utilizes a rifle of a European make. Most significantly, there have been more than a few claims over the years in JFK conspiracy circles suggesting that Lee Harvey Oswald had watched this film with a keen interest.

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The Manchurian Candidate – There’s certainly more than just a perfunctory nod to Red hysteria in John Frankenheimer’s 1962 cold war paranoia fest, which was the last assassination thriller of note released prior to the zeitgeist-shattering horror of President Kennedy’s murder. Oddly enough, Frank Sinatra was involved in this project as well.

Sinatra plays a Korean War vet who reaches out to help a buddy he served with (Laurence Harvey). Harvey is on the verge of a meltdown, triggered by recurring war nightmares. Sinatra has been suffering the same malady (both men had been held as POWs by the North Koreans). Once it dawns on Sinatra that they both may have been brainwashed during their captivity for very sinister purposes, all hell breaks loose.

In this narrative (based on Richard Condon’s novel) the assassin is posited as an unwitting dupe of a decidedly “un-American” political ideology; a domestic terrorist programmed by his Communist puppet masters to kill on command. While many of the Cold War references have dated, the film remains a solid and suspenseful political thriller (Jonathan Demme’s 2004 version was an interesting take, but I much prefer the original).

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Seven Days in May – This 1964 “conspiracy a-go go” thriller was director John Frankenheimer’s follow-up to The Manchurian Candidate. Picture if you will: a screenplay by Rod Serling, adapted from a novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II.

Kirk Douglas plays a Marine colonel who is the adjutant to a hawkish, hard right-leaning general (Burt Lancaster) who heads the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  The general is at loggerheads with the dovish President (Fredric March), who is perceived by the general and some of the other joint chiefs as a “weak sister” for his strident support of nuclear disarmament.

When Douglas begins to suspect that an imminent, unusually secretive military “exercise” may in fact portend more sinister intentions, he is torn between his loyalty to the general and his loyalty to the country as to whether he should raise the alarm. Or is he just being paranoid?

An intelligently scripted and well-acted nail-biter, right to the end. Also with Ava Gardner, Edmund O’Brien, and Martin Balsam.

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Executive Action – After the events of November 22, 1963, Hollywood took a decade-long hiatus from the genre; it seemed nobody wanted to “go there”. But after Americans had mulled a few years in the sociopolitical turbulence of the mid-to-late 1960s (including the double whammy of losing Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King to bullets in 1968), a new cycle of more cynical and byzantine conspiracy thrillers began to crop up (surely exacerbated even further by Watergate).

The most significant shift in the meme was to move away from the concept of the assassin as a dupe or an operative of a “foreign” (i.e., “anti-American”) ideology; some films postulated that shadowy cabals of businessmen and/or members of the government were capable of such machinations. The rise of the JFK conspiracy cult (and the cottage industry it created) was probably a factor as well.

One of the earliest examples was this 1973 film, directed by David Miller, and starring Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan. Dalton Trumbo (famously blacklisted back in the 50s) adapted the screenplay from a story by Donald Freed and Mark Lane.

A speculative thriller about the JFK assassination, it offers a scenario that a consortium comprised of hard right pols, powerful businessmen and disgruntled members of the clandestine community were responsible.  Frankly, the premise is ultimately more intriguing than the film itself (which is flat and talky), but the filmmakers at least deserve credit for being the first ones to “go there”. The film was a flop at the time, but has become a cult item; as such, it is more of a curio than a classic. Still, it’s worth a watch.

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The Parallax View –  Alan J. Pakula’s 1974 “conspiracy a-go-go” thriller stars Warren Beatty, who delivers an excellent performance as a maverick print journalist investigating a suspicious string of untimely demises that befall witnesses to a U.S. senator’s assassination in a restaurant atop the Space Needle. This puts him on a trail that leads to an enigmatic agency called the Parallax Corporation.

The screenplay is by David Giler and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (based on the 1970 novel by Loren Singer, with an non-credited rewrite by Robert Towne). The narrative contains obvious allusions to the JFK assassination, and (in retrospect) reflects the political paranoia of the Nixon era (perhaps this was serendipity, as the full implications of the Watergate scandal were not yet in the rear view mirror while the film was in production).

The film also takes the concept of the dark corporate cabal one step further, positing political assassination as a sustainable capitalist venture, if you can perfect a discreet and reliable algorithm for screening and recruiting the right “employees”.

The supporting cast includes Hume Cronyn, William Daniels and Paula Prentiss. Nice work by cinematographer Gordon Willis (aka “the prince of darkness”), who sustains the foreboding, claustrophobic mood of the piece with his masterful use of light and shadow.

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The Conversation – Written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, this 1974 thriller does not involve a “political” assassination, but does share crucial themes with other films here. It was also an obvious influence on Brian De Palma’s 1981 thriller, Blow Out (see my review below).

Gene Hackman leads a fine cast as a free-lance surveillance expert who begins to obsess that a conversation he captured between a man and a woman in San Francisco’s Union Square for one of his clients is going to directly lead to the untimely deaths of his subjects.

Although the story is essentially an intimate character study, set against a backdrop of corporate intrigue, the dark atmosphere of paranoia, mistrust and betrayal that permeates the film mirrors the political climate of the era (particularly in regards to its timely proximity to the breaking of the Watergate scandal).

24 years later Hackman played a similar character in Tony Scott’s 1998 political thriller Enemy of the State. Some have postulated “he” is the same character (you’ve gotta love the fact that there’s a conspiracy theory about a fictional character). I don’t see that myself; although there is obvious homage with a brief shot of a photograph of Hackman’s character in his younger days that is actually a production still from …The Conversation!

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Blowout -This 1981 thriller is one of Brian de Palma’s finest efforts. John Travolta stars as a sound man who works on schlocky horror films. While making a field recording of ambient nature sounds, he unexpectedly captures audio of a fatal car crash involving a political candidate, which may not have been an “accident”. The proof lies buried somewhere in his recording-which naturally becomes a coveted item by some dubious characters. His life begins to unravel synchronously with the secrets on his tape. The director employs an arsenal of influences (from Antonioni to Hitchcock), but succeeds in making this one of his most “de Palma-esque” with some of the deftest set-pieces he’s ever done (particularly in the climax).

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Three Days of the Condor – One of seven collaborations between star Robert Redford and director Sydney Pollack, and one of the seminal “conspiracy-a-go-go” films. With a screenplay adapted by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. and David Rayfiel from James Grady’s novel “Six Days of the Condor”, this 1975 film offers a twist on the idea of a government-sanctioned assassination. Here, you have members of the U.S. clandestine community burning up your tax dollars to scheme against other members of the U.S. clandestine community (no honor among conspirators, apparently). Also with Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson and Max von Sydow.

Pollack’s film conveys the same atmosphere of dread and paranoia that infuses The Conversation and The Parallax View. The final scene plays like an eerily prescient prologue for All the President’s Men, which wasn’t released until the following year. An absolutely first-rate political thriller with more twists and turns than you can shake a dossier at.

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JFK – The obvious bookend to this cycle is Oliver Stone’s controversial 1991 film, in which Gary Oldman gives a suitably twitchy performance as Lee Harvey Oswald. However, within the context of Stone’s film, to say that we have a definitive portrait of JFK’s assassin (or “assassins”, plural) is difficult, because, not unlike Agatha Christie’s fictional detective Hercule Poirot, Stone suspects no one…and everyone.

The most misunderstood aspect of the film, I think, is that Stone is not favoring any prevalent narrative; and that it is by the director’s definition a “speculative” political thriller. Those who have criticized the approach seem to have missed that Stone himself has stated from the get-go that his goal was to provide a “counter myth” to the “official” conclusion of the Warren Commission (usually referred to as the “lone gunman theory”).

It is a testament to Stone’s skills as a consummate filmmaker that the narrative he presents appears so seamless and dynamic, when in fact he is simultaneously mashing up at least a dozen possible scenarios. The message is right there in the script, when Donald Sutherland’s “Mr. X” advises Kevin Costner (as New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison) “Oh, don’t take my word for it. Don’t believe me. Do your own work…your own thinking.”

 

On Winter Kills (***), conspiracy a-go-go and that day in Dallas

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 23, 2019)

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“Strength takes many forms, and the most obvious forms are not always the most significant. The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the Nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us. […]

 If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. […]

We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth […] But democratic society — in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.”

President John F. Kennedy, from his Robert Frost tribute address (October 23, 1963)

Why are uneven anniversaries the less popular rest stops along the time continuum? For example, “56th anniversary” is not as sexy as “50th anniversary…or “60th anniversary” (this could explain why “51st Anniversary” is one of Jimi Hendrix’s more obscure songs).

Regardless, time marches on, the Earth continues to revolve around the Sun, and then (with apologies to Pink Floyd) one day you find ten years have got behind you, and so on and so forth and eventually we’re just history and a highlight film, over and out, bye now.

Still, we seem to need anniversaries. Why? Well, according to The Awareness Centre:

It’s a chance to reflect on a relationship or a cultural identity, to come together to remember a person who’s died, or to celebrate a joyous event.

Whatever the anniversary, it gives us a chance to look back over the years since the event we’re marking and reflect on how it has shaped us. Remembering the past (but without letting it rule us) can be an important part of understanding who we are.

Obviously, the “us” can apply to the collective, as well as the personal. Being of “a certain age”, there is one “collective” anniversary that I never fail to note…November 22.

“Where were you when Kennedy got shot?” has been a meme for anyone old enough to remember what happened that day in Dallas on November 22, 1963…56 years ago this past Friday. I was but a wee military brat, attending my second-grade class at a public school in Columbus, Ohio (my dad was stationed at nearby Fort Hayes). Our class was herded into the main gym for an impromptu all-school assembly. Someone (probably the principal) gave a brief address. It gets fuzzy from there; but I think that we either sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” or recited the Pledge of Allegiance, then got sent home early.

My 7-year-old mind could not grasp the profound sociopolitical impact of this tragedy; but I have come to understand it in the fullness of time. From my 2016 review of Jackie:

Understandably, the question of “why now?” could arise, to which I would reply (paraphrasing JFK) …why not? To be sure, Jacqueline Kennedy’s story has been well-covered in a myriad of documentaries and feature films; like The Beatles, there are very few (if any) mysteries about her life and legacy to uncover at this point. And not to mention that horrible, horrible day in Dallas…do we really need to pay $15 just to see the nightmare reenacted for the umpteenth time? (Spoiler alert: the President dies at the end).

I think that “we” do need to see this film, even if we know going in that there was no “happy ever-aftering” in this Camelot. It reminds us of a “brief, shining moment” when all seemed possible, opportunities were limitless, and everything was going to be all right, because Jack was our king and Jackie was our queen. So what if it was all kabuki, as the film implies; merely a dream, invented by “a great, tragic actress” to unite us in our sadness. Then it was a good dream, and I think we’ll find our Camelot again…someday.

Sadly, anyone who follows the current news cycle knows we’re still looking for Camelot.

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They will run you dizzy. They will pile falsehood on top of falsehood, until you can’t tell a lie from the truth – and you won’t even want to. That’s how the powerful keep their power. Don’t you read the papers?

From Winter Kills (screenplay by William Richert)

The Kennedy assassination ultimately precipitated a cottage industry of independent studies, papers, magazine articles, non-fiction books, novels, documentaries and feature films that riff on the plethora of conspiracy theories that continue to flourish to this day.

This is despite the fact few stones remain unturned…and there was that Warren Commission report released in 1964; an 888-page summation concluding JFK’s alleged murderer Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. This “conclusive” statement, of course only fueled more speculation that our government was not being completely ah…forthcoming.

At any rate (and speaking of anniversaries) 2019 marks the 40th anniversary of one of the more oddball conspiracy thrillers based on the JFK assassination…Winter Kills, which has just been reissued on Blu-ray by Kino-Lorber. Director William Richert adapted his screenplay from Richard Condon’s book (it’s worth noting that Condon also wrote the conspiracy thriller The Manchurian Candidate, which was adapted for the screen twice).

Jeff Bridges stars as the (non-political) half-brother of an assassinated president. After witnessing the deathbed confession of a man claiming to be a “second gunman”, he reluctantly gets drawn into a new investigation of his brother’s murder nearly 20 years after the matter was allegedly put to rest by the findings of the “Pickering Commission”.

John Huston chews the scenery as Bridges’ father (a larger-than-life character said to be loosely based on Joseph Kennedy Sr.). The cast includes Anthony Perkins, Eli Wallach, Sterling Hayden, Ralph Meeker, Toshiro Mifune, Richard Boone, and Elizabeth Taylor.

The film vacillates between genuine conspiracy thriller and a broad satire of other byzantine conspiracy thrillersbut is eminently watchable, thanks to an interesting cast and a screenplay that, despite ominous undercurrents, delivers a great deal of dark humor.

I own the 2003 Anchor Bay DVD, so I can attest that Kino’s 4K transfer is a definite upgrade; accentuating cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s exemplary lens work. Unfortunately, there are no new extras; but all bonus materials from Anchor Bay’s DVD have been ported over, including an entertaining commentary track by director Richert (the story behind the film’s production is nearly as over-the-top as the finished product).

Is Winter Kills essential viewing? It depends. If you like quirky 60s and 70s cinema, it’s one of the last hurrahs in a film cycle of arch, lightly political and broadly satirical all-star psychedelic train wrecks like The Loved One, The President’s Analyst, Skidoo, Candy and The Magic Christian. For “conspiracy-a-go-go” completists, it is a must-see.

Here are 5 more films that either deal directly with or have a notable link with the JFK conspiracy cult. And while you’re watching, keep President Kennedy’s observation in the back of your mind: “In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.”

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Suddenly – Lewis Allen’s taut 1954 crime thriller/film noir stars a surprisingly effective Frank Sinatra as the cold-blooded leader of a three-man hit team who are hired to assassinate the (unnamed) President during a scheduled whistle-stop at a sleepy California town. They commandeer a family’s home that affords the hit team a clear shot.

The film is primarily played as a hostage drama. It should be noted that in this case, the shooter’s motives are financial, not political (“Don’t hand me that politics jazz-that’s not my bag!” Sinatra snarls after he’s accused of being “an enemy agent” by one of his hostages). Richard Sale’s script also drops in a perfunctory nod or two to the then-contemporaneous McCarthy era (one hostage speculates that the hit men are “commies”).

That said, some aspects of the story are quite eerily prescient of President Kennedy’s assassination 9 years later; Sinatra’s character is an ex-military sharpshooter, zeroes down on his target from a high window, and utilizes a rifle of a European make. Most significantly, there have been more than a few claims over the years in JFK conspiracy circles suggesting that Lee Harvey Oswald had watched this film with a keen interest.

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The Manchurian Candidate – There’s certainly more than just a perfunctory nod to Red hysteria in John Frankenheimer’s 1962 cold war paranoia fest, which was the last assassination thriller of note released prior to the zeitgeist-shattering horror of President Kennedy’s murder. Oddly enough, Frank Sinatra was involved in this project as well.

Sinatra plays a Korean War vet who reaches out to help a buddy he served with (Laurence Harvey). Harvey is on the verge of a meltdown, triggered by recurring war nightmares. Sinatra has been suffering the same malady (both men had been held as POWs by the North Koreans). Once it dawns on Sinatra that they both may have been brainwashed during their captivity for very sinister purposes, all hell breaks loose.

In this narrative (based on Richard Condon’s novel) the assassin is posited as an unwitting dupe of a decidedly “un-American” political ideology; a domestic terrorist programmed by his Communist puppet masters to kill on command. While many of the Cold War references have dated, the film remains a solid and suspenseful political thriller (Jonathan Demme’s 2004 version was an interesting take, but I much prefer the original).

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Executive Action – After the events of November 22, 1963, Hollywood took a decade-long hiatus from the genre; it seemed nobody wanted to “go there”. But after Americans had mulled a few years in the sociopolitical turbulence of the mid-to-late 1960s (including the double whammy of losing Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King to bullets in 1968), a new cycle of more cynical and byzantine conspiracy thrillers began to crop up (surely exacerbated even further by Watergate).

The most significant shift in the meme was to move away from the concept of the assassin as a dupe or an operative of a “foreign” (i.e., “anti-American”) ideology; some films postulated that shadowy cabals of businessmen and/or members of the government were capable of such machinations. The rise of the JFK conspiracy cult (and the cottage industry it created) was probably a factor as well.

One of the earliest examples was this 1973 film, directed by David Miller, and starring Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan. Dalton Trumbo (famously blacklisted back in the 50s) adapted the screenplay from a story by Donald Freed and Mark Lane.

A speculative thriller about the JFK assassination, it offers a scenario that a consortium comprised of hard right pols, powerful businessmen and disgruntled members of the clandestine community were responsible.  Frankly, the premise is ultimately more intriguing than the film itself (which is flat and talky), but the filmmakers at least deserve credit for being the first ones to “go there”. The film was a flop at the time, but has become a cult item; as such, it is more of a curio than a classic. Still, it’s worth a watch.

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The Parallax View – Alan J. Pakula’s 1974 thriller takes the concept of the dark corporate cabal one step further, positing political assassination as a sustainable capitalist venture, if you can perfect a discreet and reliable algorithm for screening and recruiting the right “employees”.

Warren Beatty gives an excellent performance as a maverick print journalist investigating a suspicious string of untimely demises that befall witnesses to a U.S. senator’s assassination in a restaurant atop Seattle’s Space Needle. The trail leads him to a clandestine recruiting agency called the Parallax Corporation.

The screenplay by David Giler and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (based on the 1970 novel by Loren Singer, with an uncredited rewrite by Robert Towne) contains obvious allusions to the JFK assassination; e.g. it has the “assassin as patsy” scenario, and features a closing scene with a slow, ominous zoom out on a panel of men bearing a striking resemblance to the Warren Commission, sitting in a dark chamber solemnly reciting their “conclusive” findings on what has transpired (although we know better).

The supporting cast includes Hume Cronyn, William Daniels and Paula Prentiss. Nice work by cinematographer Gordon Willis (aka “the prince of darkness”), who sustains the foreboding, claustrophobic mood of the piece with his masterful use of light and shadow.

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JFK – The obvious bookend to this cycle is Oliver Stone’s controversial 1991 film, in which Gary Oldman gives a suitably twitchy performance as Lee Harvey Oswald. However, within the context of Stone’s film, to say that we have a definitive portrait of JFK’s assassin (or “assassins”, plural) is difficult, because, not unlike Agatha Christie’s fictional detective Hercule Poirot, Stone suspects no one…and everyone.

The most misunderstood aspect of the film, I think, is that Stone is not favoring any prevalent narrative; and that it is by the director’s definition a “speculative” political thriller. Those who have criticized the approach seem to have missed that Stone himself has stated from the get-go that his goal was to provide a “counter myth” to the “official” conclusion of the Warren Commission (usually referred to as the “lone gunman theory”).

It is a testament to Stone’s skills as a consummate filmmaker that the narrative he presents appears so seamless and dynamic, when in fact he is simultaneously mashing up at least a dozen possible scenarios. The message is right there in the script, when Donald Sutherland’s “Mr. X” advises Kevin Costner (as New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison) “Oh, don’t take my word for it. Don’t believe me. Do your own work…your own thinking.”

 

Blu-ray reissue: The Atomic Cafe (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 6, 2019)

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The Atomic Cafe – Kino-Lorber Blu-ray

This cautionary 1982 documentary was written and directed by Jayne Loader, Pierce Rafferty and Kevin Rafferty; a cleverly assembled mélange of footage culled from U.S. government propaganda shorts from the Cold War era. In addition to the Civil Defense campaigns (like the classic “duck and cover” tutorials) the filmmakers also draw from military training films. Harrowing, perversely entertaining, and timely as ever… it’s a must-see for anyone who cares about the future of humanity.

Image quality of this 16mm production is excellent (be aware that not all the source archival footage has been restored, per se). Extras include a 2018 interview with the 3 co-directors, plus full-length versions of 11 vintage government propaganda shorts.

Shadowy men on a shadowy planet: Wormwood (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 30, 2017)

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“Sir, I am unaware of any such activity or operation, nor would I be disposed to discuss such an operation if it did in fact exist, sir.” – Captain Willard, from Apocalypse Now

 “Boy…what is it with you people? You think not getting caught in a lie is the same thing as telling the truth?” – Joe Turner, from Three Days of the Condor

“Conscience doth make cowards of us all.” – From Hamlet, by William Shakespeare

When you peruse the history of the CIA (wait a sec…did I just hear a “click” on my phone?), at times it is indistinguishable from a campy 60s TV parody of the agency. Was there really a CIA psychotropic drugs research program called “MK-Ultra” (aka “Project Artichoke” and “Project Bluebird”) or am I conflating it with an episode of “Get Smart”?

Unfortunately, the MK-Ultra program would prove all too real for bacteriologist and former military officer Frank Olson. Olson had served as a captain in the Army’s Chemical Corps in the 1940s, which helped him snag a post-service civilian contract job with the Army’s Biological Warfare Laboratories (based out of Fort Detrick, Maryland).

Eventually Olson was recruited by the CIA to work with the agency’s Technical Services Staff, which led to his acquaintance with some of the architects of the aforementioned MK-Ultra research program. While on a retreat with a group of CIA colleagues in November of 1953, Olson was offered a drink that was spiked with an early form of LSD (unbeknownst to him). Just 10 days later, on the night of November 28th, 1953, Olson fell to his death from the 13th floor of a Manhattan hotel.

The NYPD called it suicide. And that was that. At least…that was the story at the time.

There is a lot more to this tale; specifically regarding what ensued during those critical 10 days between Olson’s LSD dosing at the retreat, and the evening that he died at the hotel.

Uncovering the details behind Olson’s demise has become an obsessive 60+ year quest for his son, Eric Olson. Eric’s relentless pursuit of the truth, a long slow white Bronco chase through the dark labyrinth of America’s clandestine community, makes for a hell of an interesting story in and of itself. This was not lost on documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, who delves deep into the mystery with his new Netflix docudrama, Wormwood.

Wormwood is essentially a 4-hour film divided into 6 episodes; with this sprawling running time, Morris has given himself lots of room to “delve”. Now, I feel that it’s my duty to advise you up front that “delving” into a mystery is not necessarily synonymous with “solving” it. So if you go in expecting pat answers, wrapped with a bow, I’m saving you 4 hours of your life now (and you’re welcome). However, if you believe the adage that it is not about the destination, but rather about the journey, feel free to press onward.

Morris has made many compelling documentaries, from his crtically acclaimed 1978 debut Gates of Heaven, to other well-received films like The Thin Blue Line (1988), A Brief History of Time (1991), and The Fog of War (2003).

Interestingly, in this outing Morris eschews his trademark “Inteterrotron”, which gives  a sense that the interviewee is “confiding” directly to the viewer. Instead, Morris plunks himself across a table from his subjects and grills them, like they’ve stumbled into Sam Spade’s office. However, he does reprise his “reality thriller” formula (mixing interviews with speculative reenactments) which he essentially invented with The Thin Blue Line; although it has been so-often imitated that it now seems cliché.

While Morris’ penchant for this Rashomon-style construction in past projects has drawn criticism, it’s a perfect foil for Wormwood; because if there is one central takeaway from the series, it is this: when it comes to plausible deniability, the CIA has 50 shades of nay.

The “official” story as to what happened in that hotel room in September 1953 has been, shall we say, “fluid” over the years (all versions are recounted). Adding to the frustration for Olson’s surviving family members (as Eric Olson points out in the film), under current laws, any citizen may file a lawsuit against the U.S. government for negligence, but never for intent. Oops! Please pardon our negligence, just never mind our culpability.

The question of “culpability” feeds the conspiracy theory elements of the film; which Morris relays via the dramatic reenactments. These segments feature a melancholic Peter Sarsgaard, whose almost spectral characterization of Frank Olson haunts the proceedings like the ghost of Hamlet’s father.

This is no accident, as Morris and Eric Olson himself make frequent analogies to Shakespeare’s classic tragedy about a son who investigates the truth behind his father’s suspicious death (hence the title of the film, taken from an aside by Hamlet, who mutters “Wormwood, wormwood” in reaction to the Player Queen’s line in the play-within-the play “None wed the second but who killed the first.”).

The Bard would be hard pressed to cook up a tale as dark, debased and duplicitous. Morris sustains a sense of dread recalling Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, and The Conversation. Of course, those were fiction; Olson’s story is not. Shakespeare wrote: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Wormwood not only confirms this, but reminds us why we need folks like Eric Olson and Morris around to cast light into dark corners where the truth lies obscured.

Blu-ray reissue: Seven Days in May ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 22, 2017)

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Seven Days in May – Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray

This 1964 “conspiracy a-go go” thriller was director John Frankenheimer’s follow-up to The Manchurian Candidate (the cold war paranoia force was strong in him!). Picture if you will: a screenplay by Rod Serling, adapted from a novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II.

Kirk Douglas plays a Marine colonel who is the adjutant to a hawkish, hard right-leaning general (Burt Lancaster) who heads the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  The general is at loggerheads with the dovish President (Fredric March), who is perceived by the general and some of the other joint chiefs as a “weak sister” for his strident support of nuclear disarmament.

When Douglas begins to suspect that an imminent, unusually secretive military “exercise” may in fact portend more sinister intentions, he is torn between his loyalty to the general and his loyalty to the country as to whether he should raise the alarm. Or is he just being paranoid?

An intelligently scripted and well-acted nail-biter, right to the end. Also with Ava Gardner, Edmund O’Brien, and Martin Balsam. No extras (Warner has a rep for skimping on them), but a great transfer.

Better poke him to make sure: Revisiting Cuba on film

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 26, 2016)

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Time, he’s waiting in the wings

He speaks of senseless things

His script is you and me, boys

-from “Time” by David Bowie

So the dictator who once inspired a documentary entitled 638 Ways to Kill Castro was finally taken out by time-honored method #639: Patience. Whether you are happy, sad or ambivalent regarding the passing of Fidel Castro, it’s inarguable that it’s been a long, strange trip for U.S.-Cuban relations since the Teflon strongman seized power in 1959.

In light of this development, I’m re-running a post that was originally inspired by Secretary of State John Kerry’s historic visit to the island-nation in October of last year:

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There’s just something about (Castro’s) Cuba that affects (U.S. presidential) administrations like the full moon affects a werewolf. There’s no real logic at work here.

-an interviewee from the documentary 638 Ways to Kill Castro

The Obama administration’s decision to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba is the latest foreign policy misstep by this President…

from Gov. Jeb Bush’s official Facebook statement, December 2014

Pardon me for interrupting, Jeb. October of 1962 just called…it wants its zeitgeist back.

the author of this post

 Although you wouldn’t guess it from the odd perfunctory mention that managed to squeeze in edgewise through the ongoing 24/7 Donald Trump coverage dominating the MSM, that flag raising at the American embassy in Cuba yesterday, coinciding with the first official visit by a U.S. Secretary of State in 70 (seventy) years was kind of a big deal.

Wasn’t it?

Maybe it’s just me (silly old peacenik that I am). Anyway, in honor of this auspicious occasion, here are my picks for the top 10 films with a Cuban theme. Alphabetically:

Bananas– Yes, I know. This 1971 Woody Allen film takes place in the fictional banana republic of “San Marcos”, but the mise en scene is an obvious stand-in for Cuba. There are also numerous allusions to the Cuban revolution, not the least of which is the ridiculously fake beard donned at one point by hapless New Yawker Fielding Mellish (Allen) after he finds himself swept up in Third World revolutionary politics. Naturally, it all starts with Allen’s moon-eyed desire for a woman completely out of his league, an attractive activist (Louise Lasser). The whole setup is utterly absurd…and an absolute riot. This is pure comic genius at work. Howard Cosell’s (straight-faced) contribution is priceless. Allen co-wrote with his Take the Money and Run collaborator, Mickey Rose.

Buena Vista Social Club- This engaging 1999 music documentary was the brainchild of musician Ry Cooder, director Wim Wenders, and the film’s music producer Nick Gold. Guitarist/world music aficionado Cooder coaxes a number of venerable Cuban players out of retirement (most of whom had their careers rudely interrupted by the Revolution and its aftermath) to cut a collaborative album, and Wenders is there to capture what ensues (as well as ever-cinematic Havana) in his inimitable style. He weaves in footage of some of the artists as they make their belated return to the stage, playing to enthusiastic fans in Europe and the U.S. It’s a tad over-praised, but well worth your time.

Che– Let’s get this out of the way. Ernesto “Che” Guevara was no martyr. By the time he was captured and executed by CIA-directed Bolivian Special Forces in 1967, he had put his own fair share of people up against the wall in the name of the Revolution. Some historians have called him “Castro’s brain”.

That said, there is no denying that he was a complex, undeniably charismatic and fascinating individual. By no means your average revolutionary guerrilla leader, he was well-educated, a physician, a prolific writer (from speeches and essays on politics and social theory to articles, books and poetry), a shrewd diplomat and had a formidable intellect. He was also a brilliant military tactician.

Steven Soderbergh and his screenwriters (Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. Van Der Veen) adapted their 4 ½ hour opus from Guevara’s autobiographical accounts. Whereas Part 1 (aka The Argentine) is a fairly straightforward biopic, Part 2 (aka Guerilla) reminded me of two fictional films with an existential bent, both  also set in torpid South American locales-Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear and Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Like the doomed protagonists in those films, Guevara is fully committed to his journey into the heart of darkness, and has no choice but to cast his fate to the wind and let it all play out. Star Benicio del Toro shines.

The Godfather, Part II– While Cuba may not be the primary setting for Francis Ford Coppola’s superb 1974 sequel to The Godfather, it is the location for a key section of the narrative where powerful mob boss Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) travels to pre-Castro Havana to consider a possible business investment. He has second thoughts after witnessing a disturbing incident involving an anti-Batista rebel. And don’t forget that the infamous “kiss of death” scene takes place at Batista’s opulent New Year’s Eve party…just as the guests learn Castro and his merry band of revolutionaries have reached the outskirts of the city and are duly informed by their host…that they are on their own! And remember, if you want to order a banana daiquiri in Spanish, it’s “banana daiquiri”.

Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay– Picking up where they left off in their surprise stoner comedy hit Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, roomies Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) excitedly pack their bags for a dream European vacation in weed-friendly Amsterdam. Unbeknownst to Harold, Kumar has smuggled his new invention, a “smokeless” bong, on board.

When a “vigilant” passenger, already eyeballing Kumar with suspicion due to his ethnic appearance, catches a glimpse of him attempting to fire up his homemade contraption in the bathroom, all hell breaks loose. Before they know it, Harold and Kumar have been handcuffed by on-board air marshals, given the third degree back on the ground by a jingoistic government spook and issued orange jumpsuits, courtesy of the Gitmo quartermaster.

Through circumstances that could only occur in Harold and Kumar’s resin-encrusted alternate universe, they break out of Cuba, and hitch a boat ride to Florida. This sets off a series of cross-country misadventures. As in the first film, the more ridiculously over-the-top their predicament, the funnier it gets. It’s crass, even vulgar; but it’s somehow good-naturedly crass and vulgar, in a South Park kind of way (i.e. the goofiness is embedded with sharp political barbs).

I Am Cuba– There is a knee-jerk tendency in some quarters to dismiss this 1964 film about the Cuban revolution out of hand as pure Communist propaganda, and little else. Granted, it was produced with the full blessing of Castro’s regime, who partnered with the Soviet government to provide the funding for Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov’s sprawling epic.

Despite the dubious backing, the director was given a surprising amount of artistic leeway; what resulted was, yes, from one perspective a propagandist polemic, but also a visually intoxicating cinematic masterpiece that remains (accolades from cineastes and critics aside) curiously unheralded. The narrative is divided into a quartet of one-act dramas about Cuba’s salt of the earth; exploited workers, dirt-poor farmers, student activists, and rebel guerrilla fighters. However, the real stars here are the director and his technical crew, who leave you pondering how in the hell they produced some of those jaw-dropping set pieces.

The Mambo Kings– Look in the dictionary under “pulsating”, and you will likely see the poster for Arme Glimcher’s underrated 1992 melodrama about two musician brothers (Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas) who flee Cuba in the mid-1950s to seek fame and fortune in America. Hugely entertaining, with fiery performances by the two leads, great support from Cathy Moriarty and Maruschka Detmers, topped off by a fabulous soundtrack. Tito Puente gives a rousing cameo performance, and in a bit of stunt casting Desi Arnaz, Jr. is on hand to play (wait for it) Desi Arnaz, Sr. (who helps the brothers get their career going). Cynthia Cidre adapted her screenplay from Oscar Hijuelos’ novel.

Our Man in Havana– A decade after their collaboration on the 1949 classic, The Third Man, director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene reunited for this wonderfully droll 1960 screen adaptation of Greene’s seriocomic novel. Alec Guinness gives one of his more memorable performances as an English vacuum cleaner shop owner living in pre-revolutionary Havana. Strapped for cash, he accepts an offer from Her Majesty’s government to do a little moonlighting for the British Secret Service. Finding himself with nothing to report, he starts making things up so he can stay on the payroll. Naturally, this gets him into a pickle as he keeps digging himself into a deeper hole. Reed filmed on location, which gives us an interesting snapshot of Havana on the cusp of the Castro era.

Scarface– Make way for the bad guy. Bad guy comin’ through. Tony Montana (Al Pacino) is a bad, bad, bad, bad man, a Cuban immigrant who comes to America as part of the 1980 Mariel boat lift. A self-proclaimed “political refugee”, Tony, like the millions of immigrants before him who made this country great, aims to secure his piece of the American Dream. However, he’s a bit impatient. He espies a lucrative shortcut via Miami’s thriving cocaine trade, which he proves very adept at (because he’s very ruthless). Everything about this film is waaay over the top; Pacino’s performance, Brian De Palma’s direction, Oliver Stone’s screenplay, the mountains of coke and the piles of bodies. Yet, it remains a guilty pleasure; I know I’m not alone in this (c’mon, admit it!).

638 Ways to Kill Castro- History buffs (and conspiracy-a-go-go enthusiasts) will definitely want a peek at British director Dolan Cannell’s documentary. Mixing archival footage with talking heads (including a surprising number of would-be assassins), Cannell highlights some of the attempts by the U.S. government to knock off Fidel over the years. The number (638) of “ways” is derived from a list compiled by former members of Castro’s security team.

Although Cannell initially plays for laughs (many of the schemes sound like they were hatched by Wile E. Coyote) the tone becomes more sobering. The most chilling revelation concerns the 1976 downing of a commercial Cuban airliner off Barbados (73 people killed). One of the alleged masterminds was Orlando Bosch, an anti-Castro Cuban exile living in Florida (he had participated in CIA-backed actions in the past).

When Bosch was threatened with deportation in the late 80s, many Republicans rallied to have him pardoned, including Florida congresswoman Ileana Ross, who used her involvement with the “Free Orlando Bosch” campaign as part of her running platform. Her campaign manager was a young up and coming politician named (wait for it) Jeb! Long story short? Jeb’s Pappy then-president George Bush Sr. granted Bosch a pardon in 1990. Oh, what a tangled web, Jeb! BTW, Bosch was once publicly referred to as an “unrepentant terrorist” by the Attorney General.

UPDATE [11-28-16]  #

I’m not the only one with Fidel on the brain…I received a flurry of emails from readers, who offer these excellent recommendations:

h/t to Michael I., Douglas W., Michael H., Carl C.,  & Timothy S.

Plus ca change: Criterion reissues Dr. Strangelove ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 16, 2016)

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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…

 –from Dr. Strangelove (1964)

That’s POTUS Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers), making “the call” to the Russian premier from the War Room, regarding an unfortunate chain of events that may very well signal the end of civilization as we know it. It’s a nightmare scenario, precipitated by a perfect storm of political paranoia, bureaucratic bungling and ideological demagoguery that enables the actions of a lone nutcase to trigger global thermonuclear war. Sound familiar?

Mein fuehrer! I can walk!” Although we have yet (knock on wood) to experience the global thermonuclear annihilation that ensues following the wheelchair-bound Dr. Strangelove’s joyous (if short-lived) epiphany, so many other depictions in Stanley Kubrick’s seriocomic 1964 masterpiece about the tendency for people in power to eventually rise to their own level of incompetence have since come to pass, that you wonder why Kubrick and company bothered to make it all up.

In case you skipped the quote at the top of this piece, it’s the movie about an American military base commander who goes a little funny in the head (you know…”funny”) and sort of launches a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Hilarity (and oblivion) ensues.

You rarely see a cast like this: Peter Sellers (playing three characters), George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn, James Earl Jones and Peter Bull (who can be seen breaking character as the Russian ambassador and cracking up as Strangelove’s prosthetic arm seems to take on a mind of its own).

There are so many great lines, that you might as well bracket the entire screenplay (by Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter George) with quotation marks.

Image result for ripper strangelove

Vodka. That’s what they drink, isn’t it? Never water? On no account will a Commie ever drink water, and not without good reason. Water is the source of all life. Seven-tenths of this earth’s surface is water. Why, do you realize that 70 percent of you is water? And as human beings, you need fresh, pure water to replenish our precious bodily fluids. Are you beginning to understand? –Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), from Dr. Strangelove

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (its full title) did not necessarily spring from a, you know, “funny” place. Indeed, Red Alert, ex-RAF officer Peter George’s 1958 source novel, was anything but; and did not even include the character of Dr. Strangelove, the ex-Nazi scientist who emerges from the shadows of the war room just in time to contextualize all that inspired madness of the film’s third act. “He” was the invention of Kubrick and screenwriter Terry Southern.

In a 1994 Grand Street article called “Notes from the War Room”, Southern recounts Kubrick’s epiphany:

[Kubrick] told me he was going to make a film about “our failure to understand the dangers on nuclear war.” He said that he had thought of the story as a “straightforward melodrama” until this morning when he “woke up and realized that nuclear war was too outrageous, too fantastic to be treated in any conventional manner.” He said he could only see it now as “some kind of hideous joke.”

Kubrick had approached Southern as a collaborator on the basis of having read his social satire The Magic Christian (which was itself adapted for the screen in 1969). You have to keep in mind that while Kubrick’s film was in production, the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was still fresh in the minds of a nervous public.

This was the height of the Cold War; few people found nuclear annihilation to be, you, know, “funny”…least of all studio suits. When Sellers backed out of the role of Major Kong (to Kubrick’s chagrin), it was first offered to Bonanza star Dan Blocker. Southern recalls (from the same article):

[Kubrick] made arrangements for a script to be delivered to Blocker that afternoon, but a cabled response from Blocker’s agent arrived in quick order: “Thanks a lot, but the material is too pinko for Dan. Or anyone else we know, for that matter. Regards, Leibman, CMA.”

 As I recall, this was the first hint that this sort of political interpretation of our work in progress might exist. Stanley seemed genuinely surprised and disappointed.

But it worked out in the end. Could you imagine anyone but Slim Pickens as Maj. Kong?

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Survival kit contents check. In them you’ll find: one forty-five caliber automatic; two boxes of ammunition; four days’ concentrated emergency rations; one drug issue containing antibiotics, morphine, vitamin pills, pep pills, sleeping pills, tranquilizer pills; one miniature combination Russian phrase book and Bible; one hundred dollars in rubles; one hundred dollars in gold; nine packs of chewing gum; one issue of prophylactics; three lipsticks; three pair of nylon stockings. Shoot, a fella’ could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff. –Major Kong prepping his B-52 crew

It was in the interest of possible “political interpretation” that a critical revision had to be made to that memorable monolog in post-production. In an eerie bit of kismet, Kubrick had scheduled the first test screening of Dr. Strangelove for November 22, 1963…the day of JFK’s assassination; in view of that zeitgeist-shattering event, the film’s originally slated December premiere was postponed until late January of 1964.

But that wasn’t the spookiest part. Originally, the last line of the bit was: “Shoot, a fella’ could have a pretty good weekend in Dallas with all that stuff.” Pickens had to be recruited to re-loop the line as we now know it. If you listen carefully during the scene, you can pick up on the edit.

However it did manage to fall together is really moot; the final product stands the test of time as a satire that will never lose relevancy (one could say that about any Kubrick film, as each ultimately points to the absurdity of all these self-important hominids, scurrying about blissfully oblivious to their insignificance within a vast, randomly cruel cosmos).

Hell, Mr. President…I could do a 2,000 word dissertation on the Freudian subtext alone; from the opening montage of aircraft engaging in (decidedly coital) airborne re-fueling maneuvers, to General Ripper firing the .50 caliber machine gun from his crotch, not to mention his cigar and his monolog about why he denies women his “essence”, to the character’s names (Dr. Strangelove, President Muffley, Buck Turgidson, Mr. Staines), and of course all of that phallic weaponry, and montage of nuclear explosions at the end.

But I won’t.

https://cynicritics.files.wordpress.com/2011/07/strangelovebuck3.jpg?resize=474%2C322Oh…and uh, shug? Don’t forget to say your prayers!

Fans of the film will be glad to hear that Dr. Strangelove has been given the Criterion treatment, with the release of their Blu-ray edition. The restored 4k transfer is gorgeous; the best print I’ve seen of the film on home video (this is the third digital version I’ve owned…it’s a sickness, I know).

They’ve really piled on the extras; there’s a plethora of archival interviews, as well as featurettes produced exclusively for this edition, like audio essays by film scholars and interviews with Kubrick collaborators and archivists. So fans can immerse themselves in the Strangelovian universe…if that doesn’t seem redundant.

Oh, when November rolls around…don’t forget to say your prayers.

# # #

Previous posts with related themes:

Criterion peddles Kubrick’s noir cycle

Synchronicity: Criterion reissues The Manchurian Candidate