Sunday, June 26, 2016

Dr. Strangelove

DR. STRANGELOVE (Kubrick, 1964)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date June 28, 2016
Review by Christopher S. Long

"Sir! I have a plan!"

As considered under the withering clinical gaze of Stanley Kubrick, men are fools and any social structure or piece of technology they create cannot, by definition, be fool-proof. They only fool themselves into thinking otherwise. The military justice system designed by men in “Paths of Glory” (1957) cannot possibly produce a just result; in “2001” (1968) the flawless HAL 9000's main flaw is that it learned more than just the song “Daisy” from its human designers. Anything men create will only propagate their own defects in different ways and, inevitably, on larger scales.

I say “men” because both of the aforementioned films, like most Kubrick films, are concerned almost exclusively with men and their questionable decisions. The same is true of “Dr. Strangelove” (1964), a world of cigar chomping, cigarette-smoke blowing, serially speechifying males, mostly of the alpha type or would-be alpha type. This world is so female-starved that the only woman in sight (Tracy Reed) serves double duty as a bikini-clad blastoff partner for General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) and as a magazine centerfold to keep the boys in a cramped bomber crew occupied on a long flight.

Kubrick, adapting the straightforwardly dramatic novel “Red Alert” by Peter George and sharing scripting duties with George and Terry Southern, goes out of his way to leave the audience with no comforting assurances of any kind. Things go wrong initially when the paranoid General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) “exceeds his authority” by ordering his nuclear-armed bombers to attack their targets in Russia, inexorably drawing America into what cowboy bomber pilot Major Kong (Slim Pickens) describes colorfully as “nucular combat, toe-to-toe with the Russkies.”

OK, that's a problem, but surely the cause is just one rotten apple. Not so. When General Turgidson describes Ripper's indiscretion to President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers), the commander-in-chief angrily fires back that the general's own “Human Reliability Tests” were supposed to be a guarantee against this very behavior. Turgidson dismisses it as “one little slip-up” but one can practically hear Kubrick chuckling in the background. Kubrick certainly believed in human reliability, the guarantee that one little slip up would invariably be followed by yet another. Which also reliably guarantees material for a lifetime of movies.

It really doesn't matter what plans men make; the problem is that they're the ones making the plans. The Russians have designed a Doomsday Device that will launch a counterstrike against any invading force, even one that admits to a mistake and actively assists in shooting down their own planes. The Russians' decision to eliminate themselves from the decision-making process by making it impossible to deactivate the Doomsday Device is yet another little slip-up. How about a quick prayer from the men down here to the man upstairs? Nope, no good there either.

The lesson could be that we shouldn't hand power over to war mongering buffoons like Turgidson or the enigmatic not-so-ex-Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove (Sellers x2), or to a dithering pseudo-intellectual like Muffley. But Kubrick's cynicism (abetted by Terry Southern, mostly brought in to recalibrate this tale of mutually assured destruction as a comedy, a decision not made until well into the project) runs deeper still. The bomber crew who receives the order to attack follows their meticulous training (more careful human planning there) to the letter and acts with both heroism and ingenuity to survive a Russian missile attack. And it is only because they've got both brains and guts that they're able to survive... and drop the bomb that will lead to the virtual destruction of human civilization. If only they were cowards or at least less competent, they might have saved the day.

And, of course, that really is funny. The desperate, helpless human condition where all roads lead to the same destination is just plain funny. Kubrick understands this well enough to allow the story to unfold in a relatively naturalistic manner. Though several of the performances are comically over the top (most notably George C. Scott, who wasn't so keen on going that far over), characters are mostly filmed neutrally, with a minimum of inflection by cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, whose stellar 1964 also included a little project called “A Hard Day's Night.”

When Ripper informs his executive assistant, Group Captain Mandrake (Sellers x3), of the impending attack, Mandrake is situated in a chair dead center in the frame and shot from a medium distance with a very quiet background audio track that renders his flat “Aw, hell” that much funnier, especially on repeat viewings. The subsequent attack on Ripper's air force base is shot like gritty newsreel footage. Kubrick indulges in the occasional heavy visual accent, such as a distorting low-angle close-up on a ranting Ripper and relies on the general absurdity of the sprawling War Room so brilliantly designed by the great Ken Adam. But mostly, he just places his foolish little men center stage, content to view them as specimens (writhing) under the microscope.

Though all their plans have failed, the film ends with the men forming yet another plan, an effort to preserve the human species and avoid a “mineshaft gap” with the Russians. The very compassionate president balks at the idea of choosing who gets to live or die, but Dr. Strangelove assures him that the somber decision can be made safely and logically by a computer. The film ends before we get to see just how spectacularly that idea will flame out, but one thing's for certain: it's gonna be some funny shit.

The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. This high-def transfer is sourced from the extensive 2004 4K digital restoration supervised by Grover Crisp that has since become the standard. This splendid restoration already yielded a great Blu-ray release by Sony a while back, and this Criterion looks pretty similar. Image detail is sharp and the black-and-white contrast is rich with a thick grain structure that should please any viewer. There wasn't much room to improve on the old release, but Criterion has at least matched the stellar quality. You can't ask for much more.

Listeners can choose between the film's original mono track (LPCM) and a 5.1 surround design (DTS-HD Master Audio). Purists will want to stick with the mono, but the surround adds a sense of dynamism without being too showy. The film should have the sound of “small” men speaking in vast spaces and the surround preserves that while perhaps treating the music a little better than the mono. Optional English SDH subtitles support the English audio.

When a film has been released in so many home theater formats, both standard and high-def, you need to do something special to distinguish yet another version. Criterion has decided to do so by absolutely stacking this Blu-ray release with extras: 14 separate features, running just under 200 minutes in total.

Let's start with the brand new features produced by Criterion just for this release.

In a new interview (2016, 19 min.), Mick Broderick, author of “Reconstructing Strangelove,” discusses Kubrick's role as sole producer (after former business partner James B. Harris left to direct his own films) on the film as well as the many changes to the project from the first draft of the script to post-production. Let's get this out of the way here. About a half dozen times in these extras, you will be presented with the shocking knowledge that Peter Sellers was initially slated to also play the role of Major Kong, eventually portrayed by Slim Pickens. The feature wraps up with a discussion of Kubrick's experiments with film marketing, including his collaboration with Pablo Ferro on the film's groovy trailer.

In another interview (2016, 12 min.) cinematographer Joe Dunton and camera operator Kelvin Pike discuss some of the camera techniques used in the film, as well as the influence Kubrick's background as a still photographer had on his film work. Yes, he knew everything there was to know about lenses.

My favorite interview on the set is with Richard Daniels (2016, 14 min.) who has the greatest job in the world, serving as senior archivist at the Stanley Kubrick Archive. Relying on the meticulous records in the archive, Daniels shows how the film changed from its earliest stages (with evidence that Kubrick wanted Burt Lancaster, Spencer Tracy and Orson Welles before budget limitations nixed those choices). He also suggests that frequent descriptions of Peter Sellers' extensive improvisation on set may be overblown.

David George, son of novelist/screenwriter Peter George, discusses (2016, 11 min.) his father's collaboration with Stanley Kubrick, portraying it as a positive, rewarding experience for the writer. He also talks about a lengthy short story George wrote to expand the background of Dr. Strangelove, a character who does not appear at all in George's book “Red Alert.”

In one more new interview (2016, 17 min.), scholar Rooney Hill analyzes Kubrick's reliance on archetypes, touching on the influence of Joseph Campbell, Jung, Freud, etc. This is informative, but if you've ever taken a screenwriting class, it's also well-worn ground.

On to the older material, much of which has appeared on previous home releases:

A brief audio interview with Kubrick (Nov 27, 1966, 3 min.) conducted by physicist/author Jeremy Bernstein gives the director a chance to briefly discuss his long-standing fascination with the subject of thermonuclear war and his belief that a director needs to edit his own film.

“The Art of Stanley Kubrick” (2000, 14 min.) features biographer John Baxter, critic Alexander Walker, cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, and others in a fast-moving gloss through Kubrick's early career up through “Strangelove.” There's not much meat here, but the best part if hearing the great set designer Ken Adam speak eloquently with that magnificent Teutonic voice that feels like it must have had some influence on Sellers' Strangelove, even if it didn't.

“Inside 'Dr. Strangelove'” (2000, 46 min.) is similar to the previous feature, but with a longer time on a more focused subject, it covers more detail. Ken Adam is back in fine form as are producer/director James B. Harris, actor James Earl Jones, and others. It's fun to hear about Kubrick beating the snot of George C. Scott in chess, and thus earning the actor's respect.

“No Fighting in the War Room” (2004, 30 min.), which is not the quote from the movie by the way, is mostly centered on interviews with former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and journalist Bob Woodward, discussing how real the thermonuclear threat was when “Strangelove” was made. Other talking heads chime in, including critic Roger Ebert and director Spike Lee. “Best Sellers” (2004, 18 min.) is from the same source and shares some of the same guest speakers, but focuses on Peter Sellers career, this time with Michael Palin and Shirley MacLaine adding their gushing appreciations. Snippets of Sellers' home movies spice up the interviews.

The disc also includes two archival features. First up is a “mock interview” with George C. Scott and Peter Sellers. These were standard promotional tools back at the time, split-screen interviews featuring the actors answering scripted questions on one side which then allowed local news anchors to pretend to be asking them the questions on the other side of the screen. Scott and Sellers are both in character on the phone in the war room with Sellers doing a series of British accents in addition to his American President voice. Second is a “Today” show interview (Mar 12, 1980, 4 min.) with Gene Shalit talking to Peter Sellers. Interestingly, Sellers talks about loving the chance to play two of the characters in “Strangelove,” leaving out Merkin Muffley.

And finally the disc includes two trailers. First is the Exhibitor's Trailer (17 min.) a sprawling piece narrated by Kubrick with the intention of convincing exhibitors to pick up the film. I'm not sure I would have been sold based on this one. We also get the famous Kubrick/Pablo Ferro Theatrical Trailer for the film.

But, wait, there's more.

Instead of their typical insert booklet, Criterion has included an insert “packet” in a “Top Secret” envelope to be opened “only when go code received.” The envelope contains a bulletin report with an essay by author and professor of English David Bromwich, a Playboy-style booklet with a lengthy essay by Terry Southern (originally published in the summer 1994 issue of “Grand Street”) regarding his collaboration with Kubrick, and a teeny-tiny combination book of Russian Phrases and Holy Bible.

Final Thoughts:
You get a great transfer, but not noticeably greater than prior high-def releases. What distinguishes this release of “Strangelove” is the overwhelming selection of extras provided by Criterion, with that Top Secret packet as a little incentive to encourage the die-hard Kubrick collector. I think that's enough to call this the definitive North American release of the film.

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