Dr. Strangelove

Dr. Strangelove (1980)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Cast: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens
Extras: Documentary, Featurette, Cast Interviews, Artwork, Trailers, Talent Files, Production Notes

I would assume that if you’re reading this you’re most likely familiar with and probably a fan of Stanley Kubrick’s classic nuclear satire, "Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Stopped Worrying And Learned To Love the Bomb." Assuming, however, frequently gets folks into trouble so let me also appeal to those of you who haven’t the slightest clue about this classic comedy by advising that you guys perhaps first rent or catch this one on TV. I say this, because in all honesty, I didn’t exactly "get" this movie the first time I saw it. I knew it was Kubrick. I knew it was heralded a classic. I knew I was "supposed" to like this movie by all accounts, but darnit – some of the jokes just didn’t tickle the old funny bone for me. And then I saw it again. And again. As is the case with most of Kubrick’s films, there’s something about "Dr. Strangelove" that just grows on you like a beard. Rest assured it is a very funny movie and every bit deserving of its’ "classic" moniker. Knowing this, Columbia has seen fit to improve upon one of their earliest releases, with this new special edition DVD.

"Dr. Strangelove" tells the story of an American General (Sterling Hayden) who’s own bizarre dislike and fear of Communist Russia leads him to order a surprise nuclear air strike on the Red Country. The problem is, well he hasn’t bothered to run this by the President (Peter Sellers), or anyone else for that matter, first. The General’s assistant, a British Captain (Peter Sellers), fearing that the order has been a simple mistake, casually confronts the General, only to become an unwilling hostage to this man who is just a bit out of his gord. Meanwhile, the orders are relayed to a B-52 bomber piloted by Major Kong (Slim Pickens), a proud Texan cowboy who accepts his fate as the man who will lead America into World War III with patriotism and loyalty.

Back at the Pentagon, the President meets with all his advisors, including General Turgidson (George C. Scott), in the giant war room to discuss their options, which they soon learn are quite limited to say the least. In hopes to prevent this terrible mistake, the President gets on the hot line phone to the Soviet Premiere only to find he is a tad drunk. With little place to turn, the President turns to his nuclear advisor, Dr. Strangelove himself (Peter Sellers yet again). The good Dr. confirms the existence of a Soviet death bomb known as the Doomsday Machine – which, automatically is triggered at the drop of an opposing nuclear bomb, and is entirely guaranteed to destroy all humans on the face of the Earth. Will the Americans be able to turn back the air strike before all hope is lost? Or will the Doomsday Machine prove to have all of our numbers? The fate of the world lies in the balance!

Sounds funny, no? The true joy of this satire lies in the belly of its performances. Peter Sellers is hands down brilliant in three separate roles. Each one is a different face, a different accent, and all have their charms. Watch the initial phone conversation between him, as the President, with the Soviet Premiere. I dare say you will never see a funnier phone conversation, specifically one where you never really hear the other side of the call, in all of film. Then watch Sellers as the British Captain Mandrake when he desperately tries to make a phone call to the President, while being detained by a stubborn U.S. soldier. It’s just great stuff. Not to be forgotten is George C. Scott as the gung-ho General who somehow remains excited about the possibilities of going through with the nuclear raid! There’s also a great pleasure to be had merely watching him slap himself in the stomach. It’s a very lively performance and great counterpoint to his widely acclaimed role as Patton. Also of note, is the screen debut of Mr. This is CNN himself, James Earl Jones as an air trooper on the ill-fated B-52.

Those of you who bought the original Columbia release, or the release that was part of Warner’s Stanley Kubrick Collection, will notice that the video transfer of this new Special Edition is exactly the same as the previous versions. This isn’t a bad thing, though, as the black and white film looks generally very good. Kubrick loved his bright, white practical lights and they look very good in this presentation, specifically in the War Room and a communications office at the American base where the crazed General is stationed. There’s been much written about the lack of a <$PS,widescreen> transfer with Kubrick’s films, but "Dr. Strangelove" was filmed predominantly at the <$PS,full frame> 1.33:1 aspect ratio. There are a few moments in the film that are slightly matted, due to how they were filmed, but it mostly goes by unnoticed. You’ll notice some slight noise in the picture along with the expected blemishes and dirt from the print, but overall this is a pretty solid transfer of a somewhat dated black and white film.

The audio track is presented in <$DD,Dolby Digital> mono, and sounds about as good as you could hope for. The dialogue is clear and dominates the mix, and the military score sounds fine without hints of distortion. The source track is clear and that’s all that is really necessary here. I can’t imagine re-mastering the film for a surround effect would really improve the experience all that much.

As mentioned before, the previous editions of "Dr. Strangelove" were as bare bones as it gets, so the special features department is basically what’s being sold here. While not crammed with extras worthy of a multi-disc special edition, what’s provided should be very interesting and appealing to fans of the film. First up is a short documentary entitled, "The Art of Stanley Kubrick From Short Films to Strangelove," and it should be noted that the title means what is says. Those of you looking for an in-depth observation of the late famed director, might be a little disappointed in its brevity, but I think it presents an interesting enough look to warrant repeat viewings. Of particular interest are the photos of the young Kubrick as he grew up in New York, becoming a talented still photographer before making his foray into motion picture directing. The documentary is dominated by interviews with Kubrick’s producing partner James B. Harris who worked with him on every film right up to "Dr. Strangelove," where he would leave producing to direct movies of his own. An insightful man, he brings us as close as we’ll get to the early work of Kubrick and helps make this a nice featurette.

While not as intrusive as the "Making of the Shining" documentary filmed by Kubrick’s daughter Vivian, the forty-five minute "Inside the Making of Dr. Strangelove" is far more educational. Multiple crew members who worked on the film are interviewed, as is James Earl Jones, and each provide some neat little known tidbit about the film. For instance, we learn that the film was originally intended to be a dramatic adaptation of a nuclear suspense novel titled "Red Alert," and that Peter Sellers was set to play the role of Major Kong in addition to his three others until an injury forced him from the job. Also shown are quite a few stills taken of the elaborate pie fight, which was written as the original ending. Alas, all footage of the scene has been lost. But cheer up because this is a really good documentary and you’ll learn a lot when you see it.

Other features included are the original split screen interviews with Peter Sellers and George C. Scott that were used as promotional material for the film. Also included are the original advertising gallery, talent files, and production notes. I would further like to point out that this DVD contains three of the weirdest trailers I have ever seen. The "Dr. Strangelove" trailer itself is a hoot with it’s exaggerated repetition of a sexy voice saying the words "the BOMB," and then there is the trailer for "Fail-Safe" and "Anatomy of a Murder." All three seem to be making an attempt to appeal to the beat generation, and you’ll just have to see the one for "Anatomy of a Murder" to believe it. They don’t make ’em like they used to, and I think it’s for good reason! Lastly, we have some very neat cartoonish animated menus that are based on the DVD cover artwork, which in itself is a terrific addition to this version of the film.

While I’m sure there are plenty of naysayers who cringe at the idea of a studio releasing a film on DVD for a third time, I feel confident saying that this edition is the charm and certainly worth owning. If you have never seen it before, I again advise that you give it the chance to grow on you and pay close attention to the performances, specifically those of Peter Sellers. Truth be told, there may never be another political satire that deals with the idea of such massive amounts of death in a comedic light. The subject is a huge risk and it’s a credit to the filmmakers that they pulled it off with such success. Finally with this Special Edition, do we have a DVD that comes close to doing justice to that success.