Dr. Strangelove - The Criterion Collection Review
After struggling to make headway in the film industry despite having acclaimed movies like Paths of Glory on his CV, it took the mainstream success of Spartacus in 1960 to truly ignite Stanley Kubrick’s career and set him on the path of becoming the legendary auteur that we know him to be. After courting controversy two years later with his adaptation of Lolita with Warners, he turned to Columbia to make the 1964 Cold War classic Dr Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, which was also Kubrick’s first effort as a fully fledged producer. Derived from Peter George’s book Red Alert, it sees the actions of a deranged Air Force General set the planet on course for total nuclear annihilation by ordering a pre-emptive strike on Russia. As the bomber crews attempt to complete their assigned missions, oblivious to the lunacy of their commanding officer, the bumbling US President and his oddball coterie of advisors scrambles to head off the looming threat of Armageddon.
On paper it doesn’t seem like a laugh-fest (quite literally, as the book plays it straight) but this fatalistic farce is quite simply a satirical masterpiece. Right from the innuendo-laden opening credits of nuclear bombers fuelling in mid-air to the instrumental strains of Try a Little Tenderness (appearing to make love, not war) it’s apparent that this isn’t going to be some musty old thriller, Kubrick delighting in skewering various aspects of the military-industrial complex that Ike warned us about in his farewell address. As aware as Kubrick was of the threat of nuclear war, he was also aware that treating such a serious subject as ‘mutually assured destruction’ with equal seriousness could end up being an overly starchy affair, so the concept was turned on its head and laden with some wonderfully absurd irony, chief among them the unforgettable moment when two characters are chided for fighting in the War Room. Character names are assigned with similarly mischievous glee, ranging from General Jack D. Ripper to President Merkin Muffley as well as Dr. Strangelove himself, which leaves you with few illusions as to the symbolism behind their respective monikers.
The actors themselves deliver some extraordinary turns, and although Peter Sellers’ remarkable triple performance (as Muffley, Strangelove and Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, aide-de-camp to Ripper) has long headlined the pop-culture impact of the film, it’s Sterling Hayden as Ripper and George C. Scott as General Buck Turgidson (again with the names) who always stick in my mind the most. Scott’s performance (one of his earlier film roles) is at odds with the wider historical perception of this moody, serious actor and his moody, serious work, being very playful and downright childlike at times as he squabbles with the Russian ambassador, acts like a lovesick teen on the 'phone and then joyously emulates the soaring bomb run of a B-52, arms aloft, only to become dumbfounded when he realises what it’ll mean for the future of the human race. Scott was apparently less than impressed that the more whimsical takes were used but Kubrick was never interested in the bland and the functional, he was always looking for performances that were 'larger than life' and he got those in spades with Scott’s terrifically funny exploits.
The towering figure of Sterling Hayden is absolutely immense as the Commie-hating cigar-chomping General Ripper, and you never fail to be utterly convinced that he really does believe that our precious bodily fluids are under threat from those darned Reds. Ripper’s realisation of the Communist threat coming during “the physical act of love” is pointedly referenced by his constant handling of phallic objects such as the cigar and the massive M1919 machine gun that he later wields, as his psychosis has been fed by his own sexual inadequacy and Hayden’s precise performance and sonorous voice (watch how he enunciates his words, even) conveys the complete conviction and surety of this man's demented beliefs.
It’s still worth coming back to Sellers though as his triumvirate of characters are all so thoroughly distinct it’s hard to believe they’re coming from the same man. President Muffley is as ineffectual as Dr Strangelove is unhinged (watch Peter Bull, playing the Russian Ambassador, crack up as Sellers’ Strangelove is attacking his wayward right hand), with Mandrake falling somewhere between the two as the beleaguered British officer trying to make sense of Ripper’s apocalyptic actions. Sellers was also slated to play Major 'King' Kong, the pilot of the bomber on its fateful mission, but an injury put paid to that and Slim Pickens was drafted in, putting his ‘good old boy’ routine to good effect as a man just trying to carry out his orders as best he can, with James Earl Jones and Shane Rimmer in support as some of his crew. And Keenan Wynn gets a small but very memorable role as the “prevert” [sic] obsessed Colonel ‘Bat’ Guano who’s been tasked with invading Burpelson Air Force Base in order to bring Ripper to his senses.
For all of Dr. Strangelove’s Cold War setting it’s still a remarkably biting piece of satire over 50 years later, and like many of the best comedies the laughs come equally from those who are playing it dead straight as much as those who are revelling in the absurdity of it all (Sellers’ own performances adhere to one facet or the other). Kubrick’s renowned perfectionism also adds a chilling feeling of plausibility and verisimilitude to proceedings, with the detailed B-52 interiors looking incredibly authentic as does the War Room thanks to Ken Adam’s incredible sets, and the sequence of the base being attacked features some of the most realistic combat footage ever filmed. Even though Kubrick would revisit warfare in both Barry Lyndon and Full Metal Jacket, there’s something so raw and immediate about Dr. Strangelove’s battle scenes that they look astonishingly authentic, like genuine newsreel footage, with the crisp black-and-white cinematography of Gilbert Taylor giving the entire movie a sense of timelessness that seems to disappear whenever you see colour photos from the set.
Basically, Dr Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb still stands out as being one of Stanley Kubrick's finest cinematic achievements, which in itself is quite some feat considering his storied career.
Following on from Sony’s 2009 Blu-ray release comes this updated Region B Criterion equivalent, again at high-definition 1080p with an AVC encode. Sony undertook an extensive 4K restoration a decade ago, as unfortunately the original negative was destroyed years before by mishandling. Grover Crisp and his restoration team made use of various other surviving materials to effect the 4K refurbishment of the film, including a fine grain master (a positive element minted directly from the negative), a duplicate negative and even a theatrical print, using digital tools to balance the grain, contrast and density of the sources from shot to shot, and it's this restoration which also forms the basis of this Criterion Blu-ray edition.
Presented in the original black-and-white at a fixed 1.66 aspect (with pillarboxed borders on the sides of the image, this is normal) you won’t find any variable aspect ratio shenanigans as seen on various DVDs and Criterion’s own Laserdisc edition (which was released 24 years ago to the day of publication of this Blu-ray review). Kubrick may have preferred open matte 4:3 for his movies in the age of ‘pan and scan’ home video, but there is no doubt in my mind that from The Killing onwards his non-large-format films were meticulously framed for matted theatrical release at either 1.66 or 1.85, and so it does them (and Kubrick's intended theatrical framing) a disservice to not present them as such in the modern age of 16:9 high definition/4K video.
Right, with the obligatory Kubrick aspect ratio waffle out of the way I can get on with the review. This new Criterion Blu-ray maintains the excellence seen on Sony’s prior edition with a clean, stable image that’s been diligently scrubbed of dirt and scratches, offering up strong detail (you can sometimes see the wires on the B-52 bomber models, it was decided not to paint them out) along with a well observed greyscale. Some minor density fluctuations remain but this helps to remind us that this is film and it gives the image a pleasingly analogue quality in spite of the extensive digital restoration. Some shots occasionally harden up, looking harsher in terms of contrast and/or detail, but given the aforementioned disparity of the sources that’s entirely to be expected and for the most part it looks absolutely beautiful, it’s like having your own pristine print of Dr. Strangelove unspooling before your eyes. To all intents and purposes this edition is identical in terms of picture quality to the Sony release. It does exhibit some minor differences in compression when examined at the forensic level (click HERE for a quick lossless screencap comparison) but in motion I could not tell the two apart.
In terms of audio the Criterion trumps the Sony, as although both feature a lossless 5.1 remix (Dolby TrueHD on the Sony, DTS-HD MA on the Criterion) and a mono mix, the Criterion offers the mono in uncompressed PCM 1.0 as opposed to lossy Dolby Digital 2.0 on the Sony. The 5.1 mix itself isn’t some vast reimagining of the film as it’s extremely respectful, opening up the front sound stage to offer a little more width and atmosphere though the music still sounds like it’s in mono. The LFE is used sparingly but you do get a nice jolt from the subwoofer when Major Kong’s payload is finally dropped and he rides it all the way down to doomsday. The mono audio is quite healthy sounding in PCM, it’s still a bit thin and has just a touch of hiss here and there but given the age of the source it’s a very commendable effort, and it sounds cleaner than the lossy mono on the Sony disc.
This Criterion edition presents a substantial assembly of extra features but not all of them are new. Shared between this and the Sony edition are the existing documentaries Inside Dr. Strangelove (46 minutes) and No Fighting In The War Room (30 mins), plus a look at some of Peter Sellers’ genius in Best Sellers (18 mins) along with a vintage Split Screen Interview (17 mins) featuring Sellers and Scott, intended for local advertisers to insert their own correspondents “asking” them questions. The Art of Stanley Kubrick (13 mins) is the last of the concurrent pieces, with the Criterion lacking the interview with Robert McNamara and picture-in-picture Bonusview mode from the Sony, nor does it include the supplements from the aforementioned Criterion Laserdisc.
In their stead we have several new interviews: Kubrick scholar Mick Broderick talks for 19 minutes about the making of the film and comes up with some fascinating titbits regarding deleted scenes, Sellers' method of working and the disastrous early assembly of the film (but alas, no mention of the infamous pie fight ending). Camera specialist Joe Dunton and camera operator Kelvin Pike both feature in the 12-minute piece about the look of the film, Dunton being in awe of Kubrick’s mastery of the frame while Pike speaks very warmly about Kubrick’s collaborative process. Archivist Richard Daniels delivers 14 minutes of insight into the renowned Kubrick archives and how they explode some of the myths about the director. Rodney Hill provides a 17-minute talk about the mythical origins of the characters, while David George (son of Peter, author of Red Alert) chats about his father’s relationship with Kubrick and their collaboration on the screenplay, including the origins of Strangelove himself.
Last up are an amusing 4-minute clip of Sellers on the Today Show with Gene Shalit from 1980, a 3-minute excerpt from Kubrick’s 1965 audio interview with Jeremy Bernstein, and two trailers. The accompanying booklet (unavailable at the time of writing) contains an essay by scholar David Bromwich and a 1962 article by the film’s co-writer Terry Southern.
Addendum [27/06/2016]: It's been brought to my attention that the trailers shouldn't be so easily overlooked, as the staccato 1960's kookiness of the Theatrical Trailer wasn't included on the previous Sony disc, and it's presented here in 1.66 HD and looks rather nice. But a greater find than that is the Exhibitor's Trailer, a 17-minute condensation of the film (again in 1.66 HD) put together to entice cinema owners to book the picture, and unless I'm very much mistaken it's narrated by Kubrick himself! He constantly refers to the material being "uncut", that is we're seeing certain scenes play out from one angle, and one angle only, often with completely different takes to those seen in the finished movie, and given Kubrick's reticence to let viewers see any kind of extraneous material over the years this piece is a treasure trove. In my defence, it would've been nice to have had this feature actually advertised by Criterion...
Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb has never had to worry about poor representation on Blu-ray but this UK Criterion Collection release has nonetheless improved its lot. While the picture quality has not been improved upon that’s not bad news as it was already excellent, and the uncompressed mono audio gives it a distinct leg up in the sound department. The existing extras that have been carried over are very good, and while the newly recorded interviews are a touch dry (as befits a succession of scholars, authors and archivists) they’re still very informative, and the exhibitor's trailer is a goldmine of unseen takes. The film itself is still as thought-provoking and funny as ever, and is richly deserving of this Special Edition release.
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