Steve Wilkinson has reviewed the remastered Region 1 release of Stanley Kubrick’s cold war comedy Dr. Strangelove, starring Peter Sellers, Peter Sellers and Peter Sellers. Learn to stop worrying and buy this disc…
In many respects the most important film in Stanley Kubrick’s development as a director, Dr. Strangelove is his first example of filmmaking as enquiry, with the subject in this case being the mechanics of nuclear war. Kubrick read voraciously on the subject and planned the project meticulously as a serious thriller until he realised that the material he had discarded as possibly risible actually started to outweigh the remainder in importance. This leap of faith (eventually achieved in cahoots with the satirical author Terry Southern on the writing staff and Peter Sellers once again in front of the camera) produced enormous dividends as out of the many cold-war era movies to discuss the topic of nuclear weapons, this film stands head and shoulders above the more earnest efforts of other directors.
The story comes straight out of the book “Red Alert” as a demented General orders the nuclear-equipped bombers under his command to attack the Soviet Union in order to trigger a full scale nuclear war and give America the chance to crush communism once and for all. Once this plan is uncovered, the liberal President and his staff have just a few hours to infiltrate the General’s command and discover the recall code of the planes. Unfortunately contact with the other side (in order to assist with the destruction of the rogue squadron) uncovers Russian plans for a “doomsday device” which will plunge the entire world into nuclear winter as automatic retaliation for the attack…
The rock-solid story line (combined with the verisimilitude which was becoming Kubrick’s trade mark) provided the perfect ground for Southern’s flights of fancy. General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) is the catalyst, a cigar-chomping psycho obsessed with commie plans to chlorinate the water supply and “poison his precious bodily fluids”, as he tells Captain Mandrake (Peter Sellers), his stiff-necked British aide. Genuine cowboy Slim Pickens plays the lead bomber Major Kong with wide-eyed innocence (“it’s the real thing, nuclear combat toe-to-toe with the Russkies”) and all-American enthusiasm, getting closer to his destination while the President Merkin Muffley (Sellers again) tries to figure out what to do. He is not helped greatly by his staff, which includes the virile General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), an out-and-out Ripper sympathiser (he believes they can beat the Russians in war with only 20 million U.S. casualties – tops) and the creepy German scientist Dr. Strangelove (Sellers once more) an wheelchair-bound angel of death obsessed with technology.
The film succeeds on all fronts, being deliciously funny, exciting and true. Other cold-war films (even as recently as 1984’s 2001 sequel 2010) tend to look pretty anachronistic and paranoid when viewed today, but the subjects that Strangelove nails so mercilessly (the unreality of politics when viewed from ground level, official military absurdity) are still relevant today. The Soviet Union of course is not, although most people will be familiar with it from James Bond movies and the like, and the jokes still work fine. Finally, judging by the nuclear activities of China, France, India, the long-running United States and others in recent times, we could definitely benefit from an updated Dr. Strangelove for this generation…
Shot with the same mixture of aspect ratios as Kubrick’s “Lolita” and similarly in black and white, Dr. Strangelove enjoys a very different look, high-contrast and documentary-style where Lolita was soft and classically romantic. This look, combined with the detail and versimilitude which contributes so much to the offbeat humour, requires a good transfer and with this disc it gets it. Anamorphic enhancement is again irrelevant (16:9 TV owners can safely zoom the disc without losing too much, as it would have been exhibited in approximately this ratio anyway) but even without it the detail shines through without edge enhancement or any other unnecessary artifacts.
Presented in its original mono, this isn’t a film that was made with a slam-bang effects in mind (even the exploding nuclear bombs are drowned out by Vera Lynn), and all that really matters is that one can hear the razor-sharp, sometimes overlapping, dialog clearly. Although basic and with limited dynamics, this track is clean enough to allow the brilliant script and performances in the film to shine.
In this respect Columbia really show Warners how it’s done, with the only true “special edition” disc in the Kubrick box set. Warners own line (backed up by the “Kubrick Estate”) is that Kubrick’s films are designed to stand on their own, so perhaps we should feel lucky that they didn’t strip the extras off when integrating the disc into this set! It’s lucky they didn’t, as the material here is fascinating.
First up is the documentary “The Art of Stanley Kubrick from Short Films to Strangelove” which gives a 15-minute potted history from his early career as a Look magazine photographer up to the film which we are watching now. Twinned with this is a substantial (45 minute) documentary “Inside the Making of Dr. Strangelove”. Both are snappily edited with an amusingly deadpan commentary and judicious use of original footage, photographs and interviews. Kubrick collaborators Ken Adam, James B. Harris (producer of his early films), James Earl Jones and many more contribute valuable material to these pieces, giving a satisfying overview of the film at hand. Pre-production, scripting (with Terry Southern getting recognition at last), filming (including substantial discussion of Kubrick’s finest ever cast) and post-production are all covered in detail. Even the cutting-edge trailer (also featured) and publicity campaign are also dissected. Riveting stuff.
Amusing odds and ends include the trailer for the “other” end-of-the-world movie (Fail-Safe, looking as pompous and old as Strangelove does fresh) and, most amusingly, split-screen interviews which would have some local TV celebrity inserted into the other side asking question which we cannot hear! These are worthy of a few laughs in themselves, as is the original trailer which is cutting-edge and hilarious. All this material is linked by splendid animated menus, continuing the “cartoon” theme of the cover. What a pity Warners couldn’t have assembled a similar collection for the other films in their Kubrick box set.
As one of Kubrick’s most perfectly conceived and executed films, presented here in the best way imaginable, this is an easy recommendation. Columbia have absolutely maximised their own Kubrick property here, and by licensing it to Warner brothers for their Kubrick box set have rather overshadowed the discs produced by that company. Outstanding, get it now and replenish your own bodily fluids!
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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