Dr Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb.
Directed by Stanley Kubrick. 1964.
Starring Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn, James Earl Jones and Peter Bull. Black and white. 95 mins. Out on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.
In the old days, when it came to the end of the world, everything was so much simpler, and so much quicker. One, swift thermonuclear exchange and we'd have been done for. Obviously this would have been a bad thing but it would have been a bit of a show, and you'd like to think the rest of universe might have been mildly impressed by both the spectacle and the sheer bloody mindedness of it all. It's both chilling and wondrous to think that the world may have ended a few years before I was born, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Now the world faces any number of excruciating, long winded and epically banal paths to extermination.
Those were the days. To some extent the bomb probably underpinned every work of art for around fifty years. The knife edged thrill of knowing that at any moment a misidentification of a flock of geese might cause civilisation to end is something that's going to seep through into everything from The War Games to The Clangers. Now though it seems clear that the film that best capture the Atomic age was Dr Strangelove, if only because it was an absurd black comedy that isn't at all funny.
1963's Strangelove, made in the aftermath of the Cuban blockade and due to be first screened on the day of the Kennedy assassination was both timely and timeless, and the beginning of run of five consecutive masterpieces made by Kubrick, through to The Shining in 1980. But of the five, Strangelove is the most accessible, the least devisive (you'd be hard pressed to find someone who really hated Strangelove, unlike any subsequent Kubrick film) and the least overtly masterpiecey.
It's a little bit rough and ready compared to the others. In fact it shows considerable evidence of being made on the hoof. The editing, particularly in the War Room scenes is distinctly scrappy. Often we seem to jump abruptly into a conversation and the amount of times the film cuts to George C. Scott for a reaction shot gives you a clear understanding of how difficult it was to edit down all the improvised material the cast were coming up with.
It is simple tale really, with just three locations, and three performances by Sellers. There is the big War Room, featuring Ken Adam's iconic set, with Sellers as President Merkin Muffley and the Nazi scientist Strangelove; the military base where mild mannered RAF officer Mandrake (Sellers) tries to reason with crazy Colonel Ripper (Hayden) who has launched a nuclear airstrike on Russia; and the bomber plane loaded with two nuclear weapons piloted by Slim Pickens. The final section was supposed to feature a fourth Sellers' role but it is just as well it didn't – almost all the dialogue is military jargon and almost nothing happens in these scenes until the very final scene, the rodeo bomb drop, which nobody could've done better than Slim Pickens.
It's remembered as Sellers' great triumph but Scott is arguably the best performance. General Buck Turgidson is a standard military caricature but Scott's line readings are so off the wall he makes him something unique. I'm not sure even he's actually funny though. I've never seen this with an audience, so I wonder how it plays with a group. Do people howl with laughter at it during screenings? You can certainly see the funny bits, and they are really funny, but I couldn't quite force a laugh at any of them. Almost every subsequent Kubrick film made me laugh out loud (Patrick Magee in Clockwork Orange enquiring “More wine?” being a particular favourite) but not his only designated comedy. I think this may be a big part of the reason why it has prevailed.
The Criterion Collection has a reputation as the gold standard for home releases; frustratingly as they were only available in the States. They have recently launched in the UK and this is the first time I've had the chance to get my greedy little hands on one of their discs and it is indeed impressive, both in terms of its quality and scope. There's so much here, there's got to be something of use to you.
The full specs are:
Restored 4K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
Alternate 5.1 surround soundtrack
New interviews with Stanley Kubrick scholars Mick Broderick and Rodney Hill; archivist Richard Daniels; cinematographer and camera innovator Joe Dunton; camera operator Kelvin Pike; and David George, son of Peter George, on whose novel Red Alert the film is based.
Excerpts from a 1965 audio interview with Kubrick, conducted by Jeremy Bernstein.
Four short documentaries from 2000, about the making of the film, the sociopolitical climate of the period, the work of actor Peter Sellers, and the artistry of Kubrick.
Interviews from 1963 with Sellers and actor George C. Scott
Excerpt from a 1980 interview with Sellers from NBC’s Today Show
An essay by scholar David Bromwich and a 1962 article by screenwriter Terry Southern on the making of the film.
I only had time to scratch the surface but the ones I watch were a thorough Making Of feature (about 40 minutes long, and a ten minute piece with the son of the author of the novel it was based on, which were both really interesting. The piece on Sellers though is mostly celebrity flim flam.
Of course the Extra I really wanted would be a Deleted Scenes section with the legendary custard pie fight in the War Room which was originally planned as the ending, but was quickly cut and seemingly lost forever.