Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 classic, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, was originally conceived as a rather straightforward political thriller — an adaptation of the British novel, Two Hours to Doom. However, the final result stands as something entirely different, an absurdist cinematic classic with memorable and iconic beats. By altering the style of the original story, and co-opting the general plot, Kubrick was able to fashion a dark, satirical comedy around the theme of nuclear armageddon.
Set in the midst of the Cold War, Dr. Strangelove chronicles the ineptitude of American politicians and military men who are unable to prevent a rogue officer’s order of a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union. Kubrick deliberately shot the film in black and white, even though, by the 1960s, the technology for filming in color was already readily available. The monochromatic color scheme is expertly suited to the film’s tone. By hiding and exposing certain areas of a scene, Kubrick utilizes the enhanced poignancy of light and shadow to inform the story and guide the audience through important moments of characterization, specifically in regards to two of the most important characters of the film: General Jack Ripper and the titular Dr. Strangelove, himself.
The primary antagonist of the film — the rogue agent mentioned earlier — is U.S. Air Force General Jack Ripper. Despite never once taking step outside his own office on a domestic Air Force base throughout the entirety of Dr. Strangelove, Ripper’s character is accentuated through two separate lighting set-ups over the course of the story.
In the first act, Ripper is filmed in his office with light that emanates from above, justified in the scene from a lamp that hangs from the ceiling over his desk. During the second act, U.S. troops invade the compound, seeking to get Ripper in touch with the president. During this fight, gunfire destroys the lamp. At this point, the light in Ripper’s office now comes from the side rather than above; the set-up from then on uses the broken window as the primary lighting source.
Throughout this, Ripper is often seen with dark shadows around the corners of his face, a direct result of the two single-light set-ups. His close-ups are inevitably shot from a low angle, emphasizing his masculinity, which, not so subtly, is also enforced through the prop of a cigar that constantly hangs from his mouth. The choice of a black and white color scheme is important here because it creates for a nice contrast between the low-light background and well-illuminated faces in Ripper’s office. That same contrast increases the feeling of gravity within the scene, an effect used for satirical purposes by its juxtaposition to the conspiracy-type reasoning the general gives for his nuclear order. (Communists are messing with America’s water supply, dirtying our precious “bodily fluids,” he says.)
When word of the impending nuclear strike reaches the president, he convenes a session of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in a war room in Washington. This scene is perhaps the most iconic of the film, and for good reason. Kubrick deliberately employs both an intense lighting dichotomy along with a prolific use of wide, master shots of the room to enforce the seriousness and grandeur of the situation, which, much like with Ripper’s scenes, is diametrically opposed with the nonchalant back-and-forth dialogue between many characters in the room.
In the middle of the film, the president is told of a Russian “doomsday” device that automatically extinguishes all life on Earth if triggered by a nuclear blast on Soviet territory. To explain such a device, Dr. Strangelove enters the scene. As Kubrick films him, the wheelchair-bound Strangelove is constantly moving in and out of the shadows. While he muses over the theoretical possibility of a “doomsday” device, a close-up shot shows a well-lit face in hard focus while a shallow depth of field forces the background of the room to go blurry. This draws the audience’s attention to the strange man, highlighting his importance to the film’s theme of the absurdity of protection through “mutually assured destruction.” As Strangelove continues his serious-yet-comedic monologue, we are shown in clear light what Kubrick wants to portray: modern American militarism can be a dangerous force edging us ever closer to a fascistic political regime.
Near the end of the film, Strangelove is shown again, this time from the shadows, as one of the generals leads the room in a short prayer. Facing nuclear armageddon, Strangelove wheels himself from the shadows and into the light, taking a moment to explain a plan of survival to the president: by choosing genetically superior humans to ride out the blasts for years underground, America may yet survive the war. Here, Strangelove is outed as an ex-Nazi, as he repeatedly calls the president “mein fuhrer” and struggles to prevent his right arm from signaling a Nazi salute. Kubrick has the doctor emerge from the shadows into the light to illustrate the emergence of a dangerous nationalism in American foreign policy, concurrently revealing Strangelove’s true character.
Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove is notable for many reasons, only one of which is the cinematographic techniques he uses to propel his story and aid its satirical mission. Impassioned performances by many of the film’s actors contribute to its timeliness, as does much of the writing and structure. But without the wise use of light and shadow, angled camera positions and wide shots, Dr. Strangelove would not nearly be as masterful of a film as it is rightly considered today.