Criterion’s special edition of Stanley Kubrick’s doomsday comedy is more powerful than ever in a 4K remaster; and it even comes with a top-secret mission profile package and a partial-contents survival kit. A Kubrick fan can have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff.
Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb
The Criterion Collection 821
1964 / B&W / 1:66 widescreen / 95 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date June 28, 2016 / 39.95
Starring Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn,
Slim Pickens, Peter Bull, James Earl Jones, Tracy Reed
Cinematography Gilbert Taylor
Production Designer Ken Adam
Art Direction Peter Murton
Film Editor Anthony Harvey
Original Music Laurie Johnson
Written by Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern, Peter George from his book Red Alert
Produced by Stanley Kubrick, Leon Minoff
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
When I heard that Criterion was putting out a Blu-ray of Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb I thought that there already was a disc out there from The Collection. Nope, Sony released a Blu-ray in 2009, and back around 2000, a DVD. I was thinking of a deluxe laserdisc from Criterion sometime in the early 1990s. I remember being impressed by its extras, which included documentary materials about the Bomb in the Cold War years. Potential new fans of Kubrick’s wickedly funny movie are being born every year, which leaves those of us for whom Strangelove was an important part of growing up having to remind ourselves just how good it still is. I remember recording the soundtrack off TV in high school and memorizing all of the dialogue; this has to be the most quotable movie of its decade. I also can remember my father’s reaction when we watched it together on network TV, ABC, I think. An Air Force lifer who wouldn’t discuss politics (or much of anything), the Old Sarge had little use for ‘defeatist’ movies like On the Beach. But he thought the premise of Seven Days in May wasn’t really farfetched, having worked with Hap Arnold and Curtis LeMay. He shook his head after seeing Dr. Strangelove but I could tell that he found it very funny. It’s too bad the two of us couldn’t have gotten our senses of humor more in sync — as soon as I wore my hair long, I think he stopped trusting me.
I believe that Dr. Strangelove is one of few movies that ‘made a difference’ in that it redirected American public opinion about a major life issue. From that point forward only the ignorant and Shoot First fanatics talked about nuclear war as win-able, at least not until the neo-con Millennium. 1963 audiences had little use for suspect ‘pacifist’ movies that ended in masochistic doom, like On the Beach. The nuclear crisis was such a hot topic that that the low-key English science fiction film The Day the Earth Caught Fire was a surprise hit. Strangelove is more realistic than the straight atom nightmare movies. We’re told that when Ronald Reagan was briefed at the start of his first term in office, he asked where the White House elevator to the War Room was. He figured it was there because he saw it in the movie.
The decision to opt for broad comedy was Kubrick’s inspired stroke. Dr. Strangelove may be the first hit film that was a bona-fide black comedy; I don’t recall anybody even using the expression before it came out. It’s not a crazy comedy where anything funny is okay. The backbone of the story remains 100% serious, while the jokes relentlessly demolish the death-cult logic of our Nuclear Deterrent. Kubrick and Terry Southern populate Peter George’s credible cold-sweat crisis with insane caricatures given ridiculous names. The scary part is that, no matter how stupid they behave, none are really that exaggerated. Peter Sellers serves triple duty in a trio of characterizations, effectively outdoing previous champion film chameleon Alec Guinness. George C. Scott steals the show as an infantile Air Force General who acts like a Looney Tunes cartoon character. And the rest of the inspired cast nails their highly original quasi-comic characters. Every joke is a gallows joke; we’re never allowed to forget that we all have an atomic noose around our necks.
I almost envy the dead viewers still unfamiliar with Dr. Strangelove, as seeing it for the first time was a mind-opening experience. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), the commander of Burpelson Air Force Base, orders a flight of B-52s to attack Russia. He then seals off Burpelson to prevent a recall of the planes. Exchange officer Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers) tries to talk him into divulging the recall code. Holding court in the War Room, President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) is horrified to discover that such a SNAFU is even possible. He orders General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) to take Burpelson Air Base by force and recall the planes, and gets on the hotline with the Soviet Premier. Up in the lead B-52, Major ‘King’ Kong (Slim Pickens) receives Ripper’s orders, coded ‘Wing Attack Plan R.’ He urges his crew to avoid Russian defenses and reach their primary target, while Turgidson tries to talk Muffley into launching an all-out attack. Advising in the War Room is ex-Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove, a grinning theoretician already fantasizing about the sexual recreation for the ruling elite in the VIP bomb shelters, where America’s chosen high officials will be living for the next 93 years.
Dr. Strangelove divides its time between three main locations, each with its own deadly serious function and each overlaid with a different comedic tone. In his locked executive office in the Alaskan Air Force Base, the sexually obsessed American General Ripper faces off with a veddy proper English officer in a farcical one-act. Beady-eyed and intense in his anti-Communist convictions, Sterling Hayden contrasts beautifully with Seller’s genial Group Captain, who can’t fathom the depth of his commanding officer’s madness.
The action in the B-52 is a throwback to those gung-ho WW2 action films in which a racially and ethnically diverse attack team uses brains and guts to barrel through their suicide mission. Even though their pilot is a cowboy clown (Slim Pickens doing his only characterization, Slim Pickens) they’re an admirable bunch, seemingly the only humans capable of doing anything without red tape or Coca-Cola machines getting in their way. The horror is that our heroes’ mission is totally against every moral precept ever imagined. The docu feeling in the B-52 is further amplified by the gritty newsreel-like footage of the taking of Burpelson AFB, with American troops fighting American troops. In 1964 these were traumatic, subversive scenes. U.S. troops on film are supposed to fight for freedom and righteousness, not kill each other. Kubrick has the audacity to place in the middle of it all a big sign that reads, ‘Peace is our Profession.’ The grainy authenticity of these scenes would come back to haunt us when similar footage started being seen nightly on television, fresh from Vietnam.
The center of activities is the War Room, a Camelot-like round table of Death located in the basement of the White House. The rational President Merkin Muffley trips over an ideological roadblock in the form of Buck Turgidson, a gum-chewing military nutcase itching to go to war and overjoyed that Jack Ripper has ‘exceeded his authority.’ The President is hardly in charge of foreign policy, and none of fifty advisors come to his aid with any original thinking. An amateur among experts, Muffley must be shepherded through protocol by an assistant. Here’s where Southern and Kubrick make their biggest points, basically asserting that a showdown with the Russkies is inevitable because the American stance is a military one — SAC just wants the peacenik in the Oval Office to get out of their way.
The comedy is all over the place, and it’s a miracle that it works. The stand-up humor on the hot line to Moscow is very much like a Bob Newhart routine. At Burpelson, it’s the Goon Show all over again. Sellers’ Mandrake cannot sway General Ripper, and the moronic Major Bat Guano (Keenan Wynn) suspects the RAF officer of being a ‘deviated prevert.’ Up in the bomber, Mad Magazine craziness is grafted onto combat realism. Previous looks at the Air Force’s flying deterrent were enlistment booster films like Strategic Air Command. Kubrick drove his English craftsmen to fake the entire bomber interior right down to the switches and gauges. The aerial combat is more realistic than that in escapist films, even with inadequate models used for exteriors of the jet bomber in flight.
Dr. Strangelove maintains a nervous tension between absurd comedy and morbid unease. Kubrick’s main career themes — sexual madness, treacherous technology and the folly of human planning — come into strong relief. We’re motivated to root for the fliers that are going to destroy the world. Then we fret over the President’s pitiful lack of control. Dour, glowering Russian Ambassador De Sadesky (Peter Bull) informs the War Room about his country’s solution to the costly Arms Race, the dreaded Doomsday Machine. Security advisor Dr. Strangelove enters the film in the last act to serve as sort of an angel of Death. Based loosely on Rand-corporation experts that calculated eventualities in nuclear war scenarios, Sellers’ vision of Strangelove is a throwback to German Expressionism. A Mabuse in a wheelchair, he’s black-gloved like the brilliant but mad Rotwang of Metropolis. Strangelove enters like the specter of Death itself; his grin looks like a skull. Contemplating ‘megadeaths’ gives him sexual pleasure. The detonation of the first bomb seems to liberate Strangelove, and he finds he can walk again. The character is straight from the Siegfried Kracauer playbook. The evil of nuclear war has restored the representative of apocalyptic Nazi vengeance to full power. Twenty years after his death, we all get to join Hitler in his suicide bunker.
First-time viewers are usually floored by the audacious Dr. Strangelove. Only the truly uninformed will not recognize baritone James Earl Jones as one of Major Kong’s flight crew. Those going back for a repeated peek will derive added enjoyment from Kubrick’s deft juggling of his several visual styles and his avoidance of anything that might deflate tension: we hear about the recall code being issued but are spared any view of the responsible military personnel that must have sent it. Some of the best fun is finding details in designer Ken Adam’s impressive War Room, such as the pies already laid out in preparation for the aborted pie-fight finale. Even better is watching the War room extras as they strain to maintain straight faces no matter how funny Sellers and Scott get; that contrast is what makes the comedy so brilliant. Watch Peter Bull carefully. In one extended take he starts to smile at Sellers, more than once. He catches himself and then is clearly on the verge of cracking up, forcing Kubrick to cut away.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is the expected sterling transfer of this Kubrick classic, a 4K digital transfer. I put it up against Sony’s old Blu-ray and the difference is not so great as to recommend that a trade-up is necessary. However, it looks extremely good. The Kubrick faithful out there will be thinking, ‘I must not allow a disc shelf gap.’
The HD picture makes quite a bit of difference in understanding Kubrick’s photographic strategy. Not only do the hand-held Burpelson combat sequences approximate the look of documentary footage, a more contrasty and grainy film stock has been used. Switching “film looks” later became a fad for directors looking to be viewed as artists. The idea perhaps reached its zenith in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. Back in 1964 the effect of imitating a news film look was quite stunning — audiences reacted to the combat scenes as if they were real.
I’m glad that we’re finally beyond the frustrating early DVD years, when someone (at Warner Home Video?) claimed that Stanley Kubrick insisted that his films be shown at the old 1:33 aspect ratio for TV and disc. Even if they wangled a note from Kubrick to that effect, I still believe that the aspect ratio games were played because Kubrick was too busy to oversee new masters of his films, and WHV wanted to market them in a hurry at a minimum of cost. That’s all old news now, but there was also the interesting aspect ratio question concerning Strangelove. At least one disc iteration — Criterion’s laserdisc, I’m fairly sure — was released in a completely un-original dual-ratio scan. Kubrick apparently said that he preferred to see the War Room scenes at a full-frame 1:37, and so this one transfer of the film popped back and forth between ratios. I’ve never heard of anything like this before or after. Criterion’s British 1:66 framing for this disc is correct, even though the film was probably screened at 1:85 for many of its American play dates.
Criterion’s new extras begin with interview featurettes with well-chosen spokespeople, like scholars Mick Broderick and Rodney Hill. Kubrick archivist Richard Daniels’ piece is quite good, as is an examination of the film’s visuals by two of the original camera crew. The son of author Peter George gives an excellent account of his father’s life and the adaptation of his novel Red Alert. George reportedly liked the notion of turning his story into a black comedy, especially when his original narrative was changed very little. The stroke of genius was deciding that the entire subject could best be approached as a sick joke.
Other extras are repeated from Sony’s DVD disc of 2004. A making-of docu interviews several surviving technicians and actors, and a primer on the Cold War atom standoff goes deep into detail. The featurettes have input from Robert McNamara, Spike Lee and Bob Woodward. Critics Roger Ebert and Alexander Walker are also represented.
Docu pieces on Peter Sellers and Kubrick appear to suffer from legal restraints disallowing the use of clips from non-Columbia sources. The Peter Sellers show features several choice film clips from the ‘fifties, including Sellers’ almost perfect take on a William Conrad-like hired killer. We’re shown some stills from the legendary The Goon Show, which is not mentioned by name. A Stanley Kubrick career piece that uses UA, MGM and Universal trailers covers a lot of territory a bit too quickly. It does have some nice interview input from Kubrick’s partner James B. Harris. Harris has since given terrific interviews on Criterion discs for Kubrick’s The Killing and Paths of Glory. Criterion’s Curtis Tsui produced those discs as well as this one.
An entertaining extra is a pair of vintage ‘split screen’ fake interviews with Sellers and Scott intended for publicity use. Each actor projects his chosen PR image. They’re charming, especially when Sellers takes us on a lightning tour of regional English accents. I wonder if those distinctions have faded, 52 years later?
As a pleasant surprise, Curtis Tsui has overseen the creation of a collectable, highly amusing substitute for a standard disc insert booklet. Inside an authentic-looking ‘Wing Attack Plan R’ envelope, David Bromwich’s insert essay is printed in the form of classified orders on two sheets of loose-leaf paper. Terry Southern’s hilariously profane 1994 essay on the movie comes in the form of a Playboy parody, illustrated with photos of Tracy Reed as ‘Miss Foreign Affairs.’ Finally, the disc credits and details are printed in a genuine miniature Russian Phrase Book and Holy Bible, a little bigger than one-inch square. It indeed offers some phrases that I’ll have to try on my multi-lingual daughter, like “Where is the toilet?” But the cover LIES, as there’s no Bible in there that I could find. Also, no nine packs of chewing gum and no issue of prophylactics.
Sound: Excellent uncompressed monaural + alternate 5.1 surround soundtrack, presented in DTS-HD Master Audio
Supplements: (from Criterion stats): New interviews with Stanley Kubrick scholars Mick Broderick and Rodney Hill; archivist Richard Daniels; cinematographer and camera innovator Joe Dunton; camera operator Kelvin Pike; and David George, son of Peter George, on whose novel Red Alert the film is based. Excerpts from a 1966 audio interview with Kubrick, conducted by physicist and author Jeremy Bernstein; Four short documentaries about the making of the film, the sociopolitical climate of the period, the work of actor Peter Sellers, and the artistry of Kubrick. Promotional interviews from 1963 with Sellers and actor George C. Scott; excerpt from a 1980 interview with Sellers from NBC’s Today show; Trailers; insert essay by scholar David Bromwich and a 1994 article by screenwriter Terry Southern on the making of the film.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 7, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson