Stanley Kubrick’s only out-and-out comedy, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, manages to terrify the audience, hold them in suspense, and trick them into rooting for people about to cause Armageddon, all the while generating side-splitting laughter.
As the darkest of dark comedies, Dr. Strangelove earns its place on my A+ list, To qualify, a film must be a masterpiece, at least 20 years old, that I personally loved for decades. In the case of Strangelove, I decided to promote it from A to A+ while preparing this review.
Considering the film’s Cold War roots, it’s amazing how well Dr. Strangelove stands up. When it was made in 1963 (it opened early in ’64), the USA and the USSR were in a nuclear game of chicken that could have wiped out humanity in hours. Not only were they competing to make more and bigger bombs; they were creating faster hair triggers for instant retaliation.
Dr. Strangelove rides on this fear. The psychotic General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) decides on his own to start World War III, and thus orders his pilots to attack Russia with nuclear bombs. No one else knows the code that will recall the planes. The military and political leaders–who set up the system that allowed Ripper to destroy the world–are too busy fighting amongst themselves to help much.
And that’s what makes Dr. Strangelove relevant in 2016. We still live in a world run by egotistical incompetents who will quite likely destroy civilization.
It helps that Stanley Kubrick was a brilliant filmmaker, and this story in particular played to his strengths while hiding his weaknesses. Since it’s a broad farce with no room for empathy, Kubrick’s coldness doesn’t hurt the story. And yet Kubrick and his writing collaborators Terry Southern and Peter George (who also wrote the serious novel on which the film was based) manage to create suspense.
Without a likeable protagonist to root for, there’s nothing Hitchcockian about Dr. Strangelove ‘s suspense. You can’t really care what happens to the characters on the screen. But you’re worried for yourself, your friends, and your family. These will be the victims should the dolts onscreen fail to stop a nuclear war.
And yet, at the climax, Kubrick briefly tricks us into rooting for the very people whose success will wipe us out.
None of this would have worked without the humor. (Kubrick started the script as a drama, then decided to make it a farce.) Much of the comedy is so subtle you might miss it, such as the binder labelled World Targets in Megadeaths. Others are broad, such as George C. Scott’s mid-sentence pratfall. (Kubrick filmed a pie fight but left it on the cutting room floor.) As President Merkin Muffley, Peter Sellers gives one of cinema’s great comic monologues. It’s a phone call, and we don’t hear the voice on the other end of the line. But how do you explain an accidental nuclear attack to a drunk Russian Premiere named Kissov?
Dr. Strangelove brims with silly yet appropriate names. There’s General Buck Turgidson (Scott), Colonel Bat Guano (Keenan Wynn), Captain Lionel Mandrake (also Peter Sellers), Dr. Strangelove (again, Peter Sellers), and Major King Kong (originally to be played by Peter Sellers, but replaced at the last minute with a very funny Slim Pickens).
Kubrick appropriately described Dr. Strangelove as a “nightmare comedy.” I wish he’d made more of them.
How It Looks
Gilbert Taylor shot Dr. Strangelove in black and white–in the last years before color became completely ubiquitous. He used the medium boldly, with very deep blacks and shining whites. The images look like a cross between film noir and a really bad acid trip.
Columbia’s 4K restoration, the same one used for theatrical DCP projection, catches that grey scale, and shows plenty of grain. Criterion’s 1080p transfer to Blu-ray looks great.
How It Sounds
Criterion’s disc offers two versions of the soundtrack. The default, and the one I recommend, is the original mono, presented here as a 24-bit, uncompressed LPCM single track. It sounds excellent.
And then there’s the new 5.1 surround mix, presented in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio. As near as I could tell, it still sounded like mono.
And the Extras
Pretty much all Criterion discs come packaged with some sort of pamphlet, poster, or booklet. But for Dr. Strangelove, they really went to town. If you haven’t seen the film, you probably won’t get the jokes in the paper-based extras:
- The Top Secret Code R envelope contains:
- A “TOP SECRET” memo, printed to look like a 60’s-style typewriter. The contents of this memo is an essay by David Bromwich about Kubrick, the cold war, and Dr. Strangelove.
- A teeny, tiny little book titled Holy Bible & Russian Phrases. And yes, it contains some English-to-Russian phrases, but no holy scripture. It also contains credits for the film and the disc, along with About the Restoration. All in absurdly tiny print.
- A 20-page booklet filled with a 1994 article by screenwriter Terry Southern about the making of the movie. Amongst other things, it gives a thorough and possibly accurate description of the lost pie fight. Also included: cheesecake photos of Tracy Reed (the only woman in the cast) as Miss Foreign Affairs.
“Shoot, a fella’ could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff.”
The disc has 14 supplemental videos, which come to about 3½ hours of additional viewing. Many of them are interesting, but they soon become repetitive.
- Stanley Kubrick: 1080p, 3 minutes. Excerpts from physicist and author Jeremy Bernstein’s 1966 audio interview with the filmmaker. Illustrated with slides.
- Mick Broderick: 1080p, 19 minutes. Film scholar Broderick discusses Kubrick’s move from director to producer/director with Dr. Strangelove. New.
- The Art of Stanley Kubrick: Standard-def material presented in 1080i; 14 minutes. Made in 2000. A documentary on Kubrick’s career up through Strangelove.
- Joe Dunton and Kelvin Pike: 1080p; 12 minutes. In this new doc, the film’s camera operators talk about working with Kubrick.
- Inside “Dr. Strangelove”: Standard-def material presented in 1080i; 46 minutes. This 2000 documentary on the making of the film is by far the best of the extras.
- Richard Daniels: 1080p, 14 minutes. Richard Daniels of the Stanley Kubrick Archive tells us about the letters, memos, drawings, etc. around Dr. Strangelove, and what they tell us about the making of the film. New.
- David George: 1080p; 11 minutes. David George, son of author Peter George, talks about his father and the writing of Dr. Strangelove. Among other things, he says that the final film follows the plot of his father’s book very closely. New.
- No Fighting in the War Room: Standard-def material presented in 1080i; 30 minutes. This 2004 documentary examines the Cold War and the dangers, then and now, of nuclear war. Interview subjects include Robert McNamera, Roger Ebert, and Spike Lee. Very good.
- Best Sellers: Standard-def material presented in 1080i; 18 minutes. From 2004. Roger Ebert, Michael Palin and others talk about Peter Sellers’ genius, with an emphasis on Dr. Strangelove.
- Rodney Hill: 1080p; 17 minutes. Film scholar Hill tries unsuccessfully to put Dr. Strangelove into a Joseph Campbell/heroes-and-myth context. New.
- George C: Scott and Peter Sellers: Standard-def material presented in 1080i; 7 minutes. From 1963. As part of the film’s marketing, Scott and Sellers were filmed answering unasked questions. Later, TV newscasters would read the questions to give the illusion of a real interview. Since we have to wait as they pretend to listen to questions, it’s kind of boring.
- Today: Standard-def material presented in 1080i; 4 minutes. From a 1980 TV interview of Sellers by Gene Shalit. Short and unenlightening.
- Exhibitor’s Trailer: 1080p; 17 minutes. Simultaneously fascinating and boring. Apparently, the movie was marketed to theaters with unedited takes–and not the takes used in the final cut–while a dull-voiced narrator explains the plot in detail. It’s those alternate takes that make it fascinating.
- Theatrical Trailer: 1080p; 3 minutes. An utterly bizarre and entertaining trailer.
The Criterion Blu-ray goes on sale Tuesday, June 28.