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 theUSSR 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.
When thinking of Stanley Kubrick's substantial oeuvre, a word that doesn't come to mind often is "funny." This is a mistake of course, as even his bleakest movies have at least a mischievous twinkle of humor (even 'Eyes Wide Shut' - just think about the film's closing line).
And for a time, Kubrick was out-and-out hilarious.
After getting chewed up and spit out by the Hollywood studio system with Kirk Douglas' 'Spartacus,' he made his goofball take on Nabokov's 'Lolita,' which costarred the very funny, very genius Peter Sellers. After toiling for a while on a straightforward adaptation of a nuclear age thriller called 'Red Alert,' he decided to go in a different direction, transposing the same framework to an all out black comedy.
The result was 1964's 'Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,' a movie that really is nothing short of magic. It also marks the beginning of Kubrick's reign as one of cinema's all-time great artists - one that would stretch until his sudden death in 1999.
'Dr. Strangelove' is a cautionary comedy. From the brilliant title sequence, which juxtaposes planes refueling to, er, sex, we know what we're in for. A general (Sterling Hayden) orders a nuclear bomb to be dropped on Russia, and then locks himself in a room with a British captain (played by Peter Sellers). A bomber plane (populated by a very young James Earl Jones and a very cowboy Slim Pickens) sets off to Russia. Inside the Pentagon, a group of gruff white men (including an Air Force General played by fabulous George C. Scott and Peter Sellers, again, this time playing the President of the United States as well as, later, the titular Dr. Strangelove) try to sort out the fate of the world. Included in this discussion is a Russian ambassador, who soon lets loose that the Russians have a doomsday device, capable of wiping out all life on earth (as we learn in the special features, this seemingly far-fetched scenario was actually quite plausible).
This could have been a kind of white-knuckle thriller, and in a way, it still is. How far, will Kubrick go, exactly, in the pursuit of bleak, absurdist comedy? Will a bomb actually be dropped because a few knuckleheads couldn't communicate properly? By the time Peter Sellers shows up as a wheelchair-bound goose-stepper, the movie reaches a kind of stratospheric level of comedy that few movies ever attempt these days (an exception, of course, is the very 'Strangelove'-ian, very underrated Tim Burton comedy 'Mars Attacks!') Can you imagine studios that put out 'Confessions of a Shopaholic' or 'Ghosts of Girlfriends Past' ever setting a comedy on the razor's edge of thermonuclear war?
This could have been an absolute folly, but in the skilled and assured hands of young Stanley Kubrick, the movie absolutely soars. Part of this is due to the trust Kubrick places in his actors. Even though Peter Sellers is amazing in his multiple roles and should be commended, I must say that I am always wowed by George C. Scott's performance. His line delivery is positively heavenly.
The movie is also so gorgeously shot - and the sets so meticulously put together - that it gives a sense of reality to the situation. As outlandish as the situations or dialogue get, it feels like the truth. There's an anecdote in one of the documentaries on this disc that when Ronald Reagan took office, he asked where the White House's war room was. There wasn't a war room, they explained to the new president - that was just in 'Dr. Strangelove.' It shows you how provocative and powerful the film really was.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This Criterion version of 'Dr. Strangelove' comes with a 50GB Blu-ray Disc from Criterion that is Region A Locked. There is an insert that is an envelope from the Strategic Air Command that is Top Secret that has three things in it. One is a fully illustrated booklet, made to look like an old Playboy, complete with ads from the 60s, relating to 'Dr. Strangelove' with an essay by Terry Southern that appeared in the summer 1994 issue of Grand Street. The second is two sheets of paper that reads Top Secret and is an essay by David Bromwich about the film, and resembles top classified documents. The third is a replica of the little red bible and Russian phrases that has some phrases, but also has all of the technical information and transfer details. The disc is housed in a fully illustrated cardboard case with cardboard sleeve with spine #821.
'Dr. Strangelove' comes with a 1080p HD transfer is presented in 1.66:1 aspect ratio. According to Criterion, due to the overprinting and damage created at the time of its theatrical release, the original camera negative to the film was destroyed some fifty years ago. Criterion used a mix of elements, including 35mm fine-grain master positives, duplicate negatives, and prints to get this new digital transfer that was created in 4K resolution.
Due to the mix of elements and different aspects of damage, Criterion decided to restore the film in a full 4K digital space. There was initial color correction and additional color correction added to this restoration, and thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed. So how does this video presentation compare and stack up to the many other previous releases? It definitely looks better, if not only slightly better from the previous release.
On a whole, the image is a tiny bit brighter, with more clarity that shows some fairly spectacular vivid details, especially in closeups. Contrast is better and the grain flows more evenly, even in the darker scenes. This is definitely the best this film has looked in all of its releases. As a whole, there is more depth to this image and everything looks just a bit cleaner, while keep its original filmic look. Also, there isn't as much print damage here, if any at all, due to Criterion's manual removal of a ton of print damage. This is an amazing video presentation from Criterion.
This release comes with an original linear PCM mono track for the film purists. There is also an awesome option for a DTS-HD 5.1 mix that sounds incredible for a deeper and more immersive soundscape. According to Criterion, the original monaural track as well as the new 5.1 option were remastered from the best surviving optical tracks that were available today.
Of course, my choice is the 5.1 option, because you get some great use from the surrounds with sound effects, score, and people talking. It just puts you more in the moment with each scene, audio-wise. Dialogue is clear and easy to follow and the score is brilliant too. There are zero issues with and pops, cracks, hiss, or high shrills. Having both audio option was certainly the way to go and I hope Criterion and other studios start to include multiple options like this.
Audio Interview with Stanley Kubrick (HD, 3 Mins.) - These are excerpts from Jeremy Bernstein and Stanley Kubrick from 1966 with coinciding photographs, as the two talk about the making of 'Dr. Strangelove and the filmmaker's thoughts on the themes and characters. Must listen.
Mick Broderick (HD, 20 Mins.) - Film scholar Mick Broderick discusses Kubrick's pre-production process on 'Dr. Strangelove' and his first efforts to bring this story to the big screen. This was made in 2016, specifically for this release.
The Art of Stanley Kubrick (HD, 14 Mins.) - While all-too-brief, this is still a fascinating look at the beginnings of Stanley Kubrick's career - from photojournalist to hired-gun (with 'Spartacus') and then to the artist he would forever be known as. A nice companion to the feature length Stanley Kubrick doc, 'Life in Pictures.'
Joe Dunton and Kelvin Pike (HD, 13 Mins.) - Here is an interview with Joe Dunton (camera advisor on 'Eyes Wide Shut') and Kelvin Pike (camera operator for most of Kubrick's films), as they discuss the techniques they used and Kubrick used for filming this movie, along with how they did some of the great visuals and effects for the film. This interview was conducted in 2016, specifically for this release.
Inside 'Dr. Strangelove' (HD, 46 Mins.) - This is a fairly exhaustive look at the making of the movie, from almost everyone that was involved (and still alive). As far as I'm concerned, this is essential viewing for anyone who loves the movie (or just loves movies in general). From the movie's evolution from a straight forward thriller to a zany comedy, the original pie fight sequence that had ended the film, and the corrections the film had to make to the script in the wake of the JFK assassination, it's all absolutely wonderful. And it was the first time I had ever realized that there's a spelling error in the opening credits. (Watch this doc to find out where!)
Richard Daniels (HD, 15 Mins.) - Here is an interview with Richard Daniels, who is the senior archivist and editor of the Stanley Kubrick Archives and New Perspectives book. Daniels talks about Kubrick and his archive as it pertains to 'Dr. Strangelove'. There is a lot of cool information here and was conducted in 2016 for this release
David George (HD, 11 ,Mins.) - Here we have a guy named David George, who is the son of Peter George who wrote the book that 'Dr. Strangelove' is based on. David talks about his father working with Kubrick and finding a story that introduces the Strangelove character. This was made in 2016 for this release.
No Fighting in the War Room (HD, 30 Mins.) - This documentary examines the satirical elements of 'Dr. Strangelove' and how they really were closer to the truth than anyone imagined (or hoped or feared). With a wonderful selection of interviewees (many of which were also part of the aforementioned doc), including Robert McNamara (engineer of the Vietnam war), Spike Lee, Bob Woodward, and Roger Ebert, the subject matter really comes to life; strong, powerful stuff.
Best Sellers (HD, 19 Mins.) - This is one of my favorite things on the disc - a great look back at Peter Sellers' life and work. He seemed to be a man of profound joy but also of profound sadness, and this really chronicles his ups and downs in a succinct and powerful way. Essential viewing.
Rodney Hill (HD, 18 Mins.) - This is also an interview with film scholar Rodney Hill as he dives into the mythology, themes, and archetypes of 'Dr. Strangelove'. This was recorded in 2016 for this release.
George C. Scott and Peter Sellers (HD, 7 Mins.) - As an introductory note describes, studios would often film their actors on set, asking scripted questions. When the movie would then be released, the second half of the screen would be swapped out by some regional talent, asking the scripted questions, making it look like the interviewer was actually interviewing the actor, even though the whole thing was phony and done months beforehand. So here are two examples of that, with Peter Sellers and George C. Scott. It's pretty weird, but interesting, and the way George C. Scott says "picture" will stay with you all day.
Today (SD, 5 Mins.) - Perhaps my ABSOLUTE FAVORITE bonus feature on this release and is worth the price of this Criterion alone is a rare interview from 1980 with Peter Sellers by Gene Shalit, as Sellers does impressions of Michael Caine and other British people. Hilarious.
Trailers (HD, 5 Mins.) - Two trailers for the film.
Criterion Booklet and other Goodies - There is an envelope from the Strategic Air Command that is Top Secret that has three things in it. One is a fully illustrated booklet, made to look like an old Playboy, complete with ads from the 60s, relating to 'Dr. Strangelove' with an essay by Terry Southern that appeared in the summer 1994 issue of Grand Street. The second is two sheets of paper that reads Top Secret and is an essay by David Bromwich about the film, and resembles top classified documents. The third is a replica of the little red bible and Russian phrases that has some phrases, but also has all of the technical information and transfer details.
'Dr. Strangelove' is one of the funniest films ever made and is as true and relevant today as it was back in the early 60's. Stanley Kubrick made one of the best satires with this film and its characters and images are as iconic as the director himself. I don't think anything could ever beat Slim Pickens riding a nuclear bomb down to the ground like a rodeo cowboy. Plus, you get Peter Sellers in some of his best roles ever here. Criterion has definitely knocked it out of the park with this release, with all of the excellent extras and the upgraded video and audio presentations. Even though you've probably owned this movie a dozen times over by now, this Criterion version is still a must own and has the rare perfect score!
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.