Release Date(s)1964 (June 28, 2016)
Studio(s)Columbia/Sony (Criterion – Spine #821)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A+
In case you haven’t guessed by its title, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is black comedy at its finest. The film wraps itself smartly in the trappings of the Cold War and cleverly reveals just how truly absurd that history actually was.
But when this Stanley Kubrick classic first premiered in 1963, it caught an unsuspecting public by surprise. The arms race was in high gear. People took those silly “duck, cover, and don’t look at the flash” civil defense films seriously, and home bomb shelter construction was considered a growth industry. So it goes without saying that folks didn’t quite know what to make of Dr. Strangelove. It was nominated for four Academy Awards, but it was many years before the film came to be widely appreciated. The more we’ve come to understand the sheer magnitude of the military and political folly of the time however, the more brilliant Strangelove seems to become.
Here’s the plot in a nutshell: During the height of the Cold War, the U.S. Air Force maintained an around-the-clock airborne strike force of B-52 bombers, poised to deliver nuclear annihilation upon the Soviet Union at a moment’s notice. Aboard one of these bombers, Major “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) and his crew receive the unthinkable – the “go” code to initiate Wing Attack Plan R. It seems that, back at good old Burpelson AFB, their wing commander, General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), has gone stark raving mad. Believing that the government is ignoring a Communist plot to poison the water supply with fluoridation, Ripper sets out to “protect our precious bodily fluids” by launching a nuclear first strike. This, he hopes, will force ineffectual President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) into action. When Muffley learns that he can’t recall the bombers, he’ll have to order an even bigger strike to overcome the inevitable Soviet counter-attack. Of course, when confronted with this news, Muffley does nothing of the sort, preferring instead to inform a drunken Soviet Premier that one of his commanders “went and did a silly thing.” He even invites the Soviet Ambassador into the top secret War Room, much to the chagrin of his gung-ho military advisor, General “Buck” Turgidson (George C. Scott). The Ambassador soon reveals that the Soviets have developed a Doomsday Machine, that will automatically destroy all life on Earth if it detects an American attack. As things unravel in Washington, back at Burpelson, a British exchange officer (Captain Mandrake – also Sellers) attempts to reason with Ripper, knowing that he’s the only person with a prayer of stopping this insanity. Meanwhile, aboard his B-52, the no-nonsense Kong is determined to complete his mission, come hell or high water. And in the end, it’s up to the film’s infamous Dr. Strangelove (Sellers yet again) to devise a last clever plan for “preserving a nucleus of human specimens”...
Sellers is terrific here as Muffley and Mandrake, but it’s as the off-kilter Dr. Strangelove, a wheelchair bound ex-Nazi scientist, that he truly shines. With his lop-sided hair, Strangelove is an obsessive, maniacal figure, for whom Heil-Hitlering is an involuntary response. Scott’s blustering performance is equally entertaining as the gum-chewing Turgidson. Fans of classic Disney live-action films will quickly recognize Keenan Wynn as Colonel “Bat” Guano. And yes… that is James Earl Jones among the bomber crew (in his first feature film role). But it’s for Slim Pickens’ goofy turn here that I really love this film. He’s absolutely hilarious as cowboy-turned-pilot Kong: “If this thing turns out to be half as important is I figure it just might be, I’d say that you’re all in line for some important promotions and personal citations when this thing’s over with. And that goes for every last one of ya, regardless of yer race, color or yer creed!”
It’s also worth noting that Dr. Strangelove is loaded with sly, tongue-in-cheek jokes. Almost every character name is the film is some kind of clever sexual innuendo or pun. You’ll smile at the “Peace is our Profession” signs around Burpelson AFB... as American soldiers engage in a firefight across the base. You might spot that the pin-up girl in Kong’s Playboy is Turgidson’s secretary. Among the books in front of Turgidson in the War Room is one labeled World Targets in Megadeaths. Even the Soviet Premier’s name is a joke... Dimitri Kissoff.
So that’s my take on the film. Now the question is: How does Criterion’s new Blu-ray edition compare with Sony’s fine 2009 BD release? The answer is: This is without a doubt the definitive release on the format.
The quality of Criterion’s 1080p (1.66:1 aspect ratio) video presentation is terrific. Dr. Strangelove was one of the first full 4K film transfers completed by Sony for their catalog, all the way back in 2004. It was released originally on DVD only, and finally on Blu-ray in 2009. This is the same transfer, but it’s been given a little bit more remastering… and, of course, the state-of the-art in digital remastering technology has improved in the twelve years since the transfer was first completed. What this means is that the new Criterion Blu-ray is just a little bit better looking than the 2009 Sony release. Detail is a little tighter and more refined. The film grain, while still obvious, is just a little less coarse. The image exhibits great contrast with outstanding black levels. The only way this film could look better on disc would be if Sony were to release it in actual 4K on Ultra HD Blu-ray at some point.
The film’s original English soundtrack is available here in uncompressed LPCM 1.0 mono, as well as an alternate 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix. Both are of excellent quality, with good overall clarity and dynamic range for a film of this vintage. The mono mix is certainly my preference, but both retain the essential sonic character appropriate to the original theatrical experience. Optional English subtitles are available for those who may find them useful.
In terms of extras, Criterion has created and compiled the finest batch supplements to date for this film, enough to please any serious cinephile or fan of Dr. Strangelove. They start with a 3-minute excerpt of an audio interview conducted by Jeremy Bernstein in 1966, in which Kubrick discusses his approach to making the film. Flying Solo: Stanley Kubrick as Producer (19:14 – HD) is a fine featurette in which Mick Broderick, author of Reconstructing Strangelove, discusses Kubrick’s work on the film in the context of his career at the time. He also talks a little bit about the deleted footage from the film, specifically what material was deleted and why (though we only see still images of it), details some of the film’s theatrical release complications, and talks about Kubrick’s experimental approach to the aesthetics of the film’s the marketing campaign. The Art of Stanley Kubrick: From Short Films to Strangelove (13:50 – SD) is a featurette carry over from Sony’s 2001 DVD release. Stanley Kubrick’s Pursuit of Perfection: Joe Dunton and Kelvin Pike (12:13 – HD) is a good new piece with a veteran cinematographer and camera operator, both of whom worked with Kubrick (Dunton on Eyes Wide Shut and Pike on The Shining, 2001, and Dr. Strangelove) talking about the way that Kubrick’s background as a photographer influenced his approach to filmmaking. Inside Dr. Strangelove (46:04 – SD) is another fine documentary carry over from the 2001 DVD. In Exploding Myths: Richard Daniels on the Stanley Kubrick Archive (14:15 – HD), archivist Richard Daniels provides insights gleaned from material Kubrick himself created and collected during the creation of his films, Dr. Strangelove in particular. In Deep Impact: David George Remembers Peter George (10:57 – HD), the son of the author of Red Alert, upon which the film was based, remembers his father and the genesis of the film project. No Fighting in the War Room (30:04 – SD) and Best Sellers Or: Peter Sellers and Dr. Strangelove (18:28 – SD) are carry overs from the 2004 Sony 40th Anniversary DVD release. Transcending Time: Symbols and Strangelove (17:25 – HD) is another new piece in which Kubrick scholar Rodney Hill examines the film’s philosophic and symbolic subtext. Thankfully, the vintage split-screen interviews with Peter Sellers and George C. Scott are included here (7:16 – SD). There’s also a rare 1980 video interview of Sellers by Gene Shalit from NBC’s Today Show (4:23). Finally, you get the rare Exhibitor’s Trailer (16:53 – HD), which features uncut and alternate takes, and the film’s innovative original theatrical trailer (3:24 – HD).
And in a wonderful touch, there’s a great liner notes booklet included in a small manila envelope that reproduces the film’s Wing Attack Plan R orders (this was done with the film’s original press pack as well). The booklet itself includes rare photos from the film and a 1994 essay by screenwriter Terry Southern. Also in the envelope is a 2-page essay by film scholar David Bromwich. Best of all, however, is a kind of wonderful physical Easter egg: The envelope contains a tiny replica of the B-52 crew’s Holy Bible & Russian Phrases booklet! It’s so tiny that it’s easy to miss in the envelope (and I bet a lot of reviewers have) but it made me laugh out loud when I found it. The first page includes a few “useful” translations, and the rest is disc credits. Kudos, Criterion!
Note that there are a couple of extras from the previous Sony editions that do not carry over here, including The Cold War picture-in-picture option and the Interview with Robert McNamara (from Sony’s 45th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray in 2009), as well as the gallery of advertising materials (from the 2001 DVD). You may wish to keep those editions to retain it all.
Dr. Strangelove is a supremely funny film and one of my all time favorites. It’s not to everyone’s taste, but if you like dark comedies and biting satire, this is as good as it gets. This is also arguably one of Kubrick’s best films, so it’s well worth watching for that reason alone. Criterion’s new Blu-ray edition is a welcome addition to the Collection an immediate must-have for cinephiles. Just be sure to pack your survival kit, watch out for deviated pre-verts, and remember: There’s no fighting in the War Room!
- Bill Hunt