The black and white genius of Kubrick and Sellers
You don't need us to tell you Stanley Kubrick was great at making films. But there's something special about his work with Peter Sellers...
There are so many great moments in film that came from the imagination of Stanley Kubrick. Many of them are in, and are about, colour – the saturation of bright red blood that pours from the lift in The Shining, or the myriad of lights at the end of 2001. But before he created any of those images Kubrick made two black and white films that concentrated on dry wit, the darkest kind of humour, and owed a great deal to the manic brilliance of Peter Sellers. They were Lolita (1962) and Dr Strangelove (1964).
After butting heads with Kirk Douglas on the epic Spartacus (1960), Kubrick turned to a much smaller project; Vladimir Nabokov’s screenplay of paedophilic obsession based on his own novel, Lolita. It’s the story of a professor, Humbert Humbert, who lusts after the twelve year old daughter of his landlady. In Kubrick’s hands this all-consuming passion becomes a love-triangle, with the character of Quilty, a playwright who mirrors Humbert, being given more importance. The subject matter is so dark, but this is a pitch-black comedy, with Lolita moved to her teenage years (it’s no less repulsive as a tale of abuse of power but was thought to be more acceptable to the audience at the time, and easier to cast). This promotion of Quilty to a major role had everything to do with the casting of Peter Sellers.
Kubrick requested Sellers for the role, finding his ability to improvise fascinating. And so Quilty became a loose cannon, turning up unpredictably and saying whatever came into his head. James Mason, as Humbert Humbert, looks entirely uptight and uncomfortable in their scenes together, which is absolutely right for the character. At one point Sellers plays Quilty playing Doctor Zempf – a German psychologist who looks a lot like the forerunner of Dr Strangelove – and you get the feeling there are layers of improvisation, secrecy and tragedy taking place. I’m never quite sure if Quilty really fits in this film. He is decadent and absurd, and I don’t believe he could possibly be interested in Lolita. He seems too self-involved.
I think Lolita has some brilliant elements, and they are the elements I associate with all my favourite Kubrick movies. The mise-en-scène, for instance; in the opening scenes, when Humbert drives to Quilty’s house and finds him wrapped in a sheet, drinking champagne and playing ping-pong, every object in that cluttered house (which reminds me of Xanadu in Citizen Kane) looks very interesting, and absolutely right. And there’s the way the camera moves with the actors, making involved observers of us at a distance, keeping us emotionally separate. We are never asked, in any moment, to empathise with Humbert Humbert. And yet we don’t detest him either. We observe him and his choices, and the way his reality crumbles.
In the end, I think Lolita isn’t an entirely successful film. It feels very slow to me at times, Quilty doesn’t fit well, and there’s really nobody to root for once the brilliant Shelley Winters (as Lolita’s mother) is no longer in the picture. But I think it’s a dry run for the film that Kubrick made next. Dr Strangelove has the same black humour, the same dry detachment, and relies heavily on the improvisational skills of Sellers.
Dr Strangelove is based on a thriller by Peter George called Red Alert, and George worked on the screenplay along with Kubrick and Terry Southern, changing the story to a comedy. A US Brigadier General has a breakdown and orders a nuclear strike on Russia – it would take a particular kind of mind to see this plot as humorous, but Kubrick saw the potential in it. After all, what else can you do about global nuclear war but laugh?
Sellers was earmarked to play four roles as one of the conditions of Columbia Pictures’ funding: Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley, Dr. Strangelove, and Air Force Major TJ ‘King’ Kong, but this final role was eventually played by Slim Pickens instead; Sellers faked a broken leg to get out of it. I wonder if Kubrick had sucked up all of Sellers’ creative energy by that point. Kubrick said of Peter on set that although he arrived, “walking very slowly and staring morosely” his mood would later brighten and the rehearsal would start to work, leading to, “a state of comic ecstasy”. That must have been extremely hard to maintain, particularly with at least three cameras on him at all times, so that no tiny moment of creative inspiration would be missed.
The three roles Sellers did play are all very different. I like frowning, reasonable Lionel Mandrake the most, who seems warmer and more believable than Sellers had managed before, but I think Kubrick got the best out of Sellers in all three performances. Kubrick later became famous for demanding so much of his actors, doing multiple takes in the hope of unlocking some extra element. Nicole Kidman commented after filming Eyes Wide Shut (1999), “He believed that what it does to you, as an actor, was that you would lose control of your sense of self.” But with Sellers there was no need to search for that elusive moment – the actor freely admitted never having a sense of self to begin with. Kubrick said of him, “He was the only actor I ever knew who could really improvise.”
Dr Strangelove is, I think, the easiest Kubrick film to engage with. The shots of those B52 bombers flying through the air to serene music are so peaceful, while the camera sits quietly in the war room, looking on at humanity’s ridiculousness. It’s as if the camera is a microscope, and this is all happening so very far away. Can we manage to look at ourselves dispassionately, as a species? But, if we’re not up to the task, at least Sellers makes us really laugh.
Kubrick then went on to spend four years making 2001 (1968) so he could look at the human race from space. The cerebral perfection of that film is staggering, and it always seemed to me to be the perfect follow-on from Dr Strangelove. From nuclear destruction at our own hands we are taken back in time to where we learn to use our first weapon – the bone of another creature. From the end of mankind, we go back to the beginning, and see the seeds of our own destruction being sown. I always suspected that juxtaposition would have appealed to both Kubrick and Sellers enormously.
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