DVD: Dr. Strangelove

DrStrangeloveDVDSTUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Stanley Kubrick | STARS: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn, Slim Pickens, Peter Bull
RELEASE DATE: 6/28/16 | PRICE: DVD $29.95, Blu-ray $39.95
BONUSES: interviews with scholars and crew members; featurettes on the making of the film, historical context of the plot, and Peter Sellers; Sellers on the Today show; “exhibitor’s trailer”; and split-screen interviews of Sellers and George C. Scott
SPECS: PG | 95 min. | Comedy | 1.66:1 widescreen | mono

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall

No doubt this deluxe Criterion release will frustrate fans who bought the “40th Anniversary” DVD edition of Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 comic masterpiece Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. But this two-disc set contains the single best digital remastering of the film and ups the ante by containing both the supplements included in the earlier releases and seven new items.

As always, Criterion has adhered to the wishes of the filmmaker — in this case, though, the filmmaker had several contradictory wishes. The original theatrical prints of Strangelove were seen in 1:85, but Kubrick had always wanted the bomber-plane scenes to be in 1:66 and the rest of the film to be 1:37 — he got his wish and the film was released for a time in that clunky fashion (with the film appearing in two different ratios, so that certain scenes required letterboxing and others did not).

Then Kubrick decided that he hated the way that his films looked on American home-video formats and instructed the companies releasing Strangelove to adopt the 1:33 ratio. Criterion’s laser disc from many years ago presented the film in its odd, varies-from-scene-to-scene multi-ratio version, but this edition moves the film back to the happy-medium solution of 1:66 (present in the “40th Anniversary” version), in which the least amount of visual information has been lost.

Little need be said about the film itself, save that it is a modern classic, the best possible treatment of nuclear “brinkmanship,” which happens to both very smart and extremely funny. One almost wishes it could simply be an artifact of the Cold War, but as beautifully constructed as it is, and given the fact that U.S.-Russian relations are so often contentious, it does seem like Dr. Strangelove will be applicable to international politics for a long time to come.

The supplements present here that originated in earlier DVD releases cover a lot of territory. One featurette reviews the creation of the film, another situates it historically and a third profiles the comic genius of Peter Sellers (The World of Henry Orient). The voices of the central participants are present via a 1966 audio interview with Kubrick and on-camera publicity interviews with George C. Scott (Anatomy of a Murder) and Sellers.

There are two major highlights among the seven new extras. The first is a March 1980 Today show interview of Sellers by Gene Shalit. Sellers cites Being There and Strangelove as his favorite films, but Shalit veers the conversation to Sellers’ ability to do numerous regional British accents.

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George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove

The other best new item is a 16-minute “exhibitor’s trailer” narrated by Kubrick that offers glimpses at key sequences before they were edited, including long alternate takes. The most amusing part of this is that Kubrick — control freak that he was — keeps on mentioning that the long takes we are seeing would be broken up by close-up shots of other characters’ reactions.

The five other new supplements are enlightening and were clearly intended to approach the film from new angles. Kubrick archivist Richard Daniels offers interesting details about the original version of the script, which was a dead-serious thriller about nuclear peril, following the lead of the source novel, Red Alert by Peter George. At that time, Kubrick was hoping for Burt Lancaster, Frederic March and Orson Welles to appear in Strangelove. Casting information is not supplied, however, for a later iteration of the script in which a frame device had aliens studying the destroyed planet Earth.

Other interview subjects provide information that contradicts certain lore surrounding the film. The character of Strangelove is commonly identified with co-scripter (and master satirist) Terry Southern, whose novels and screenplays have such broadly drawn authority figures. Novelist Peter George’s son David George contends that, while the characters was not in his father’s source novel, George the elder conceived of him first, albeit as a “suave” German presidential aide named Von Klutz, and then wrote out a “backstory” for the Strangelove character.

Film scholar Mick Broderick stresses the fact that the film was Kubrick’s first as a director-writer-producer, meaning he had control over the picture from inception through the marketing campaign (and, as the ratio discussion above proves, far beyond). Broderick reviews various bits of business that were filmed and then cut out, including the fact that Sellers’ egghead American president was supposed to be fighting a bad head cold.

Broderick’s most important revelation is that Sellers’ dialogue wasn’t rife with ad-libs, as has been assumed. He maintains that nearly all the dialogue for Sellers’ trio of characters can be found in the script — but that he did change tone and inflection from take to take and came up with various pieces of physical comedy (so Strangelove’s battle with his belligerent arm is certain to have mostly been Sellers’ invention).

The most eye-catching element of this new edition of the film is the requisite Criterion booklet of essays. In this case it is a folder that resembles the envelope of classified information that bomber-plane major Slim Pickens (Skidoo) opens in the film. Inside is a “memo” (an essay from English professor David Bromwich), a miniature Bible and Russian phrase book (a tiny pamphlet in which the film and Criterion restoration credits are contained), and a “men’s magazine” (a booklet containing an article on the film by Southern).

Southern’s essay supplies a good last word on the film, as it offers a very detailed description of the missing last sequence, a long pie fight that Kubrick cut because its tone wasn’t right, as the performers were having too much fun. Southern goes most film historians one further by describing what was shot after the pie fight, as the pie-covered general Buck Turgidson (Scott) and Dr. Strangelove form a “metaphorical visual marriage of mad scientist and the United States military.”

In this odd era when almost anything is possible in the political arena, even the scenes that were edited out of the film seem oddly plausible….

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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”