A perverse, almost schadenfreudist humor permeates through Kubrick’s middle and late oeuvre. Apart from 2001: A Space Odyssey, his most famous films either contain directly humorous elements or an overtly wrong tone, which creates a dissonance so extreme it is comical, and in many cases both. Dr. Strangelove is one such film.
Peter Sellers is a directly humorous element in all three of his characters. Captain Mandrake, perhaps the most grounded of the trifecta, is a stereotypical British officer, and is as spineless as that would imply. His name hints at this cowardice, as he would much rather hide from confrontation than face it head on. President Merkin Muffley is a bit of a nebbish, and his vaginal name contrasts greatly with the smorgasbord of phallic imagery. Dr. Strangelove’s name is clear marker to his personality; he loves strange things. This includes nuclear destruction, bunkers of women, and pleasing his “Furher.”
Seller’s outlandish characters stand out against a backdrop of (mostly) straight-faced performances. In this tension between comedy and tragedy lies the most evocative and long-lasting humor. Mandrake takes a proud stand against General Ripper, then asks politely to be let out and give over the recall code. President Muffley speaks to the Premier of the USSR as if they were in a long distance relationship, not a long distance armed conflict. Dr. Strangelove inserts his eugenic ideals into his plan of survival, causing the men in the War Room to daydream about supermodels rather than commit to an actual plan.
Seller’s not the only actor tasked with “hamming it up.” Major Kong fancies himself a cowboy. He speaks with such a thick accent and in so many similes as to be almost incomprehensible. General “Buck” Turgidson is an anthropomorphized realization of boyish wartime fantasies. Even his name is a juvenile joke.
Why do the most ridiculous characters stand out so much in this film? What is the effect of this? Would the film be humorous without such wild performances?