Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Stanley Kubrick’s painfully funny take on Cold War anxiety is without a doubt one of the fiercest satires of human folly ever to come out of Hollywood. The matchless shape-shifter Peter Sellers plays three wildly different roles: Air Force Captain Lionel Mandrake, timidly trying to stop a nuclear attack on the USSR ordered by an unbalanced general (Sterling Hayden); the ineffectual and perpetually dumbfounded President Merkin Muffley, who must deliver the very bad news to the Soviet premier; and the titular Strangelove himself, a wheelchair-bound presidential adviser with a Nazi past. Finding improbable hilarity in nearly every unimaginable scenario, Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is a genuinely subversive masterpiece that officially announced Kubrick as an unparalleled stylist and pitch-black ironist.
Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb receives yet another Blu-ray release, this time through The Criterion Collection. Like previous Blu-rays and the 40th anniversary DVD this edition also uses the same 4K restoration performed by Grover Crisp in 2004. The film is presented here in 1080p/24hz high-definition in the aspect ratio of 1.66:1 on a dual-layer disc.
I have the UK Blu-ray of Dr. Strangelove, which, other than more subtitle language options, appears to be the same as the North American Sony release and between this edition and that UK edition I cannot detect any sort of difference in image on my television screen. Right down to the same minor fluctuations that remain in the print to contrast levels and gray scale, they look very similar to one another. This isn’t too surprising because honestly it’s hard to imagine anything looking better, or at least significantly better, than the current Sony Blu-ray. It’s a testament to how good this restoration is because, even after 12 years, it still looks amazing. When it first appeared on the 40th anniversary DVD it absolutely blew me away after all the previous versions I had seen on home video (with late-90s VHS editions and the original DVDs coming from what I’m guessing was Criterion’s previous restoration that had varying aspect ratios) and then to finally see it on Blu-ray was revelatory.
So, yes, it looks wonderful here but it doesn’t offer any noticeable improvement, and at the same time it certainly doesn’t look any worse. Detail, despite the various sources used for the restoration, still looks sharp, with excellent textures and depth. Film grain is fine and rendered well, retaining a natural look. The encoding looks to be very good and nothing stood out in the way of noise or compression: it retains a very natural, filmic look. Contrast, gray levels, tonal shifts, and black levels all look wonderful and pretty much on point. The clean-up job has also been very thorough: other than some mild pulses and fluctuations there isn’t any other bits of damage of note, and this is the case with the old Blu-ray as well.
Maybe if I did a side by side comparison of the two I’d notice a difference, but as it is, just switching back and forth, I don’t see a difference. Again this isn’t a bad thing since it still looks great, and it’s hard to imagine it looking any better (short of a scan of the negative, which would be a miracle since the negative was destroyed decades ago), but those only looking for an image upgrade are pretty much out of luck here.
Criterion presents the original mono track as well as the newer 5.1 surround remix. The former is presented in lossless linear PCM 1.0 mono, while the latter is presented in DTS-HD MA.
In this case there is a difference between Criterion’s edition and Sony’s previous release: Sony presented the surround audio in Dolby TrueHD on their edition, while also presenting the mono track in lossy Dolby Digital mono. Criterion’s notes also suggest the tracks may be different in other ways: though they don’t mention doing any further restoration work on the image they do mention doing further restoration work on the audio.
The mono track does sound very good, though we certainly don’t get a very dynamic mix, even for a mono track. Dialogue is clear and rich, as is music, but range is really limited and a bit flat in the end. The restoration has been very thorough, though, and I don’t recall any background noise.
I’m usually not a fan of surround remixes but I must say the one that was created for this film is pretty good. The track is far more dynamic, even in terms of dialogue, and the mix nicely balances the music and effects around the dialogue. Voices stick primarily to the center front speaker but music and sound effects do spread out through the other speakers, more notable during some of the action scenes like the shoot out that happens at the air force base. The surround effects are still fairly subtle, not overly showy, but they get the job done, with noticeable splits and direction at times, which creates a fairly satisfying experience. The mix doesn’t drown out other aspects and as I said everything is balanced well.
Compared to the previous Sony edition I think the mono track does sound a bit sharper here, with better volume levels, but I can’t say I noticed a real difference between the surround tracks.
In the end both tracks presented here are pretty good, it will ultimately just come down to personal preference. I’m at least glad Criterion gives the option here.
The video and audio areas of this edition may not offer a substantial upgrade—or any upgrade at all—over the previous Sony Blu-ray(s) but Criterion has put a lot of effort into the special features. They appear to have carried over most everything from the previous DVD and Blu-ray editions while adding a lot of new material, most of it produced themselves.
Criterion first adds about 3-minutes’ worth of excerpts from a 1966 interview with director Stanley Kubrick conducted by physicist/author Jeremy Bernstein. Here Kubrick explains how his interest grew in the H-bomb and then goes into the development of the script for Dr. Strangelove. It’s unfortunately brief but it’s nice to get some material featuring the director, who also talks about his hands-on approach to all areas of a film.
Following this is a new interview with scholar Mick Broderick, who focuses mostly on Kubrick’s working method and his first time out as a solo producer. He talks about the production history before talking about how Kubrick worked with those around him, particularly his actors. Kubrick of course has the reputation of being a perfectionist which leads to the idea he had an exact “thing” in his mind that he wanted, which would lead to, for one thing, a large number of takes. Broderick, who has researched Kubrick’s archives and has seen excised footage from the film, explains this wasn’t entirely the case as he was trying to set up an environment for his actors to try anything they wanted, “hone their craft” so to speak. He also was open to suggestions and did take a number of them from cast and crew. Broderick also gives examples of how Kubrick really did have a hand in every stage of the film, from writing right through to editing (which was fairly unusual) and he even designed the film’s marketing (which scared Columbia Pictures). Broderick seems determined to clear up some misconceptions of the director, and he keeps things engaging and interesting for 19-minutes.
The next feature first appeared on the early 2000 special edition DVD released by Sony, The Art of Stanley Kubrick. Focusing on Kubrick’s career leading up to Dr. Strangelove, the 14-minute featurette is typical of studio produced supplements of the early DVD era: quickly paced talking heads piece that basically bulldozes through its subject. Quickly editing together interviews between producer James B. Harris, designer Ken Adam, scholar Alexander Walker, actor James Earl Jones, and others, we get a brief history of Kubrick’s life between when he was a photographer for Look magazine, to making his first few films up through Lolita, and how that film, along with the new popularity of Peter Sellers, got Dr. Strangelove made. There are some details about some of the technical aspects of the film, from set design to film stock, but it’s limited. For a studio DVD feature from the time it’s above average since it actually does have a few interesting topics.
To look at the camera work in the film Criterion brings in cinematographer and camera innovator Joe Dunton, and camera operator Kevin Pike, the latter having worked on Dr. Strangelove. Dunton spends most of his time looking at the lighting and camera work, particularly admiring how Ken Adam’s set came off looking in the film, and how they used the blackness in areas to hide portions of the set that ultimately gives it a grander look. Pike talks about this as well but then shares stories from the shoot, particularly what it was like working with Kubrick and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor. It’s a nicely rounded piece about the look of the film getting a third party’s perspective while then getting a first-hand account from the set. It runs 12-minutes.
Inside Dr. Strangelove is another feature carried over from the 2000 special edition DVD. Running a fairly lengthy 46-minutes the documentary is typical of the time, giving an all-encompassing overview of the production with a number of talking-heads interviews, including James B. Harris, James Earl Jones, Ken Adam, Kubrick friend Roger Caras, Kevin Pike, Gilbert Taylor, and many others, intercut with behind-the-scenes footage and photos. It goes through each step of the process from conception to writing to filming to editing to release. Along the way it also looks at some of the issues that came up, like how Kubrick tried to curb the release of a similar film in production, Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe (Lumet actually appears here to talk about it). There’s also a lot of talk on abandoned ideas (the president was originally supposed to be a much weaker, sickly character) and other deleted sequences, like the pie fight, which is only shown here in stills. It’s a pretty typical doc for the time (all of the Bond DVDs featured similar documentaries), following an expected linear narrative covering the production, but it’s certainly informative and still holds up rather well all these years later.
Criterion then provides a newly recorded interview with the senior archivist at the Stanley Kubrick Archive, Richard Daniels. Here he looks at the production through the various documents he’s dug up, giving a decent idea behind Kubrick’s creative process. Through notes he’s able to see the progression of the film, including a number of dropped ideas and scenes (after it went the comedy route, the original idea was to have aliens introduce the film as faraway observers bewildered at our destructive nature) and who he actually wanted in certain roles if it wasn’t for budget constraints (Orson Welles as the Russian ambassador for starters). He also has access to a lot of the dialogue that was ultimately cut out, more than likely because it slowed down the pace of the film. He also digs up some of the promotional material used for the film. It’s another solid addition on Criterion’s part, giving even more backstory to the film’s production that I haven’t come across before.
David George, son of author Peter George, whose novel Red Alert was the basis for the film, next talks about his father and the book, and how he came to work with Kubrick on adapting it. There are a few differences between the film and book (obviously since the book sounds to be more of an action/thriller) but the one key difference is that the character of Dr. Strangelove doesn’t exist in any form in the novel, though a similar character appears in another one of his father’s story. The real benefit to this feature is that we also get a little bit of a comparison between the novel and film: despite the obvious change in tone the plots are actually fairly similar and the structure of the film does follow the structure of the book fairly closely according to George. This is one of those books that I’ve always meant to read but, of course, never have, so getting some more details about it, even if they’re slim, is great to have. It runs 11-minutes.
Criterion then pulls the next feature from the 40th anniversary DVD edition: No Fighting in the Warroom, a 30-minute look at the nuclear threat during the cold war. The feature as a whole is a bit of a mix as to what it’s intending to be. It features interviews with Harris again, along with filmmaker Spike Lee, critic Roger Ebert, and others, who talk a bit about the time of the cold war and how the film depicts it, but the main event here is that we also get interviews with journalist Bob Woodward and former secretary of defense Robert McNamara. Woodward, still amazed we didn’t blow ourselves up, spends his time just reflecting on the feelings of the period, while McNamara really offers the nitty gritty. He explains that there were actually a number of times where nuclear bombs being launched was a real possibility, human error being the biggest threat, and he also explains that, as insane as some of the film was, there was a lot of truth to it (it was “insane” but it reflected reality). It’s interesting to hear about how something like a “doomsday device” was actually talked about as a deterrent, and that, scarily enough, it wouldn’t have been totally unreasonable for a scenario like the one in the film to happen in real life. McNamara also criticizes a number of policies of the time and the idea of “acceptable losses.” The feature does give a decent amount of contextualization, especially for the young’uns who got to miss out on even the tail end of the cold war, though the feature is ultimately a mix of “making-of” and history lesson. McNamara and Woodward really should have been the focus here, and I almost wish Criterion made something new instead, similar to their feature on their edition of The Manchurian Candidate that contextualized the brainwashing scare. Still, getting McNamara’s input is certainly priceless so I am still more than happy Criterion carried this over.
Best Sellers also comes from the 40th anniversary DVD and the 18-minute program looks over the career of actor Peter Sellers. Roger Ebert, Shirley MacLaine, Michael Palin, Sir David Frost, and James Earl Jones all share their stories, thoughts, and opinions about the actor, using these as the basis to go through Sellers’ life and career from his beginnings with Spike Milligan and the Goon Show, to the Pink Panther films, his work with Kubrick, and then his last film, Being There. It’s unfortunately not as in-depth as one would probably like, though this could be blamed on the fact that Sellers was really a tough person to get to know according to those that had been around him. Still, there’s some nice reflections and material, and I liked the small section that looks at how Sellers probably developed the voice of Dr. Strangelove.
Criterion’s final newly recorded submission is probably the weakest feature in the set. Scholar Rodney Hill spends 17-minutes looking into the character archetypes represented in the film, looking at the various materials that probably inspired Kubrick. I liked his analysis of the “heroes” in the film, but I can’t say there’s anything truly revelatory here. Ah well.
Carried over from the 2000 DVD edition are the publicity “interviews” with George C. Scott and Peter Sellers. Most have probably already seen these, but they’re essentially fake interviews that were recorded beforehand and then given to television stations. Using a split screen and the illusion of a phone call, the networks would then have an on-air personality ask the already scripted questions and it would look like a live interview. We of course only get Sellers’ and Scott’s end of the conversation here (both were recorded separately) and sadly don’t get the questions that would have been asked, but Scott talks mostly about his acting career while Sellers serves up some impersonations and accents. In all the feature runs 7-minutes.
Criterion then digs up a 4-minute clip from an episode of Today featuring Gene Shalit talking to Peter Sellers, recorded in March of 1980 (Sellers would unfortunately pass away a few months later). Sellers is there to promote Being There but the two just have a general conversation about his work, with Sellers stating that the characters of Dr. Strangelove and Mandrake being his favourite roles. He also gives a few examples of the various English accents that exist, but not before claiming he doesn’t have his own voice (the one he speaks with during the interview is his “radio voice” apparently). We obviously only get a sample here but it’s a funny inclusion, and one of the few interviews I’ve actually seen with Sellers.
Criterion then includes a couple of trailers: the exhibitor’s trailer is the one that would have went out to theater owners to entice them to show the film. Running 17-minutes it gives a very quick rundown of the plot of the film, showcasing some of the highlights from the film, most of which—unsurprisingly—showcase Sellers. We then get the innovatively edited theatrical trailer that would have been shown to audiences.
Criterion then goes all out with their “insert.” Criterion’s inserts have been fairly bland the last couple of years but this one is quite clever: inside the digipak there is an “top secret Plan R” mini manila envelope, matching the one in the film. Inside, Criterion then includes what looks like a miniature magazine, top secret documents, and a miniature “Russian Phrases and Holy Bible” booklet matching the one in the film. It’s a clever bit of design and is where you’ll find all of the text supplements. The ”top secret” documents actually present an essay on the film by David Bromwich going over the relevancy and impact of the film.
The “magazine” is a booklet featuring a reprint of a 1994 article written by co-screenwriter Terry Southern, who recalls the film’s production, offering a far more insightful look into the production. It’s a wonderful read, and his recollection of Slim Pickens’ arrival on set is one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever read.
What is also wonderful is Southern gives a detailed, step-by-step breakdown of the pie fight scene. The pie fight scene was never going to be included as a special feature here. This sucks, simply put, but it was just not going to happen, but this may be the next best thing. It’s mentioned in the other features but no context is offered for it in them. Here Southern explains the scene exactly as it would have played out, and getting this you can see how the scene probably would have been pretty brilliant. The problem was that the studio only allowed Kubrick one take and unfortunately it didn’t work because he forgot to tell everyone about how the scene should play, and it should have been played out seriously: people were smiling and laughing, and because of this and how he wanted to juxtapose it with the nukes going off the scene ultimately didn’t work. So it had to be cut. We may never see the scene, but thanks to Southern’s recollection you can actually visualize it.
Scattered throughout the “magazine” you get photos (including a center page devoted to Tracy Reed’s Miss Foreign Affairs) and then advertisements that are actually nods to the various gags in the film.
Disappointingly the miniature “Russian Phrases/Holy Bible” booklet doesn’t actually contain any Russian phrases or scripture. Instead, Criterion uses it for the notes on the set’s release, including production credits and notes on the restoration work. Still, it’s an ingenious little package and someone certainly had a lot of fun designing this.
Unfortunately Criterion doesn’t carry any of the “cooler” supplements from their LaserDisc release. The original LaserDisc included the film’s script, which Kubrick insisted be removed, so it was unlikely to show up here anyways. But Criterion also included a number of propaganda materials from the time about the “Commie threat” and the nuclear scare, including the infamous “duck and cover” educational film. I’m really surprised these didn’t make it over, and they would have been really wonderful additions, offering more contextualization of the time period for those new to the film. Still, these videos can still be found online.
In the end, though, this is where the release shines. Criterion takes most of the previous supplements (the picture-in-picture feature from the Sony Blu-ray is missing here) and then adds some more Academic features, offering a more satisfying experience. Are they worth the upgrade? That will really come down to personal taste. I really did enjoy most of the new material, which focused more on how Kubrick worked and it gives a better idea behind the progression of this particular production, which the older supplements really only touched the surface of. If that aspect interests you, then yes, otherwise you’ll more than likely be just fine with the current Sony Blu-ray edition(s). But, there’s no denying in terms of supplements, with hours of material, this is one hell of a special edition.
Criterion has put together a really wonderful special edition here, and they have gone all out on it. For those that have yet to pick up the film on Blu-ray I would certainly point them to this one, but for those thinking of upgrading it’ll ultimately come down to supplements since there isn’t a major difference between this Blu-ray and the previous Blu-ray in terms of picture and audio (though this edition at least presents a lossless monaural track). Still, it’s a fun and satisfying special edition for the film, and easily the best one I’ve come across.