These days, we tend to think of comedies as being loud, furiously paced and thematically shallow. That’s a gross generalisation, but if you were to ask any member of the general public what kind of traits a comedy film might have, that’s probably what you’d get. The history of film though says otherwise – over the past century, comedy has provided to include biting social commentary and ground-breaking artistry alongside wild entertainment and side-splitting humour. And of all the great classic comedies, none are quite as biting or as ridiculous as Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 masterpiece ‘Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’, which captures the insanity and horror of the Cold War within the framework of almost-slapstick anarchy. This week, ViaVision finally releases this classic film on Blu-ray, the last of Kubrick’s films left to be released in high definition in Australia.
When General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) goes rogue and launches a nuclear missile attack on the USSR, the U.S. government descends into a frenzy. President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) demands an explanation from General ‘Buck’ Turgidson (George C. Scott) as to how Ripper had authorisation to do so, all the while trying to calm the USSR president. Trapped at Ripper’s side is Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers), a British offer trying to find some way of reversing the order, before Major ‘King’ Kong (Slim Pickens) and his bombing team launch the weapons. Their only hope lies in a mysterious ex-Nazi Dr Strangelove (Peter Sellers), who might have an answer for surviving the imminent nuclear apocalypse.
It’s a ridiculous labyrinth of characters and circumstances, but Kubrick and co-writer Terry Southern turn this anarchy into a glorious comedic ballet. Kubrick uses his skills as a documentarian to give the film a gritty immediacy, the look of the film composed and austere. It’s a perfect contrast to the action he captures, the performances swinging between committed conviction and broadly ridiculous and the situation they find themselves in spiralling more and more out of control. In ‘Dr Strangelove’, Kubrick wields comedy like a weapon, prompting us to explode with laughter before realising the enormity of the situation. We may have the gift of foresight now, but the political climate when the film was released had the world hanging on the brink of nuclear war. Cinematic exploration of this had been imposing and serious until that point, but no-one had dared laugh at the situation or the men in charge of it. Even now, ‘Dr Strangelove’ feels dangerous, almost sacrilege, but what Kubrick knew was that he could say far more and land a greater impact on his audience through a comic approach than a dramatic one ever would. This was a turning point for Kubrick, where his experimentation in his earlier films settled into a confidence and artistry that would make him the finest director in the medium. Every frame, every beat, every turn of the film is absolutely perfect, a powerhouse piece of direction.
Perhaps his greatest achievement though was his casting, and that careful directorial decision to step out of the way and let his cast blossom. Acting titans like Hayden and Scott were never more delectably silly than in this film, Hayden delivering his preposterous dialogue with an unflinching straight face, while Scott leaps and bounds across the screen like a crazed Looney Tunes character. The centrepiece of the film though, and arguably his greatest work, are the three performances from Peter Sellers. They demonstrate the full range of this comic genius, from the moving sincerity of Muffley to the scattered bumbling of Mandrake to the biblical enormity of Strangelove. Sellers totally dominates the film, but under the careful hand of Kubrick, he never displaces it, instead becoming the key component in the breathtaking tapestry of the film.
This is a titanic comic masterpiece, an enormous and dangerous achievement that still sends shockwaves and belly rolls decades later.
It’s taken an absurdly long time for ‘Dr Strangelove’ to finally land on Blu-ray in Australia, and its arrival is worthy of celebration. This is a titanic comic masterpiece, an enormous and dangerous achievement that still sends shockwaves and belly rolls decades later. It’s unfair to compare modern comedies to anything directed by Stanley Kubrick, but when you have something as sublime as this film, it’s hard not to.
PICTURE & SOUND
For this release, ViaVision have repurposed the disc released in the U.S. by Sony in 2009, but there’s little to complain about with this. The 1080p 1.66:1 transfer was taken from a 4K remaster, resulting in probably the finest presentation of the film on home video to date. The transfer both acknowledges the age of the film and brings out a striking amount of detail. There’s some inevitable print damage that pops up, but overall the back-and-white cinematography looks gorgeous. The disc also includes both the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 remix and the original mono track, both of which sound terrific. The remix doesn’t overdo it, maintaining the integrity of the original design, and while there are inevitable issues because of the age of the film, it never gets in the way.
We also get all the special features included on the 2009 U.S. disc, beginning with a terrific Picture-in-Picture track, ‘The Cold War’, brimming with interviews, production materials and trivia relating to the film and its context. ‘Inside Dr Strangelove’ (46:04) is a traditional making-of retrospective, but covers an enormous amount of ground and material, and is further complemented by ‘No Fighting in the War Room’ (30:04), which takes a closer look at the legacy and surprising accuracy of the film, and ‘An Interview with Robert McNamara’ (24:26), where the former Secretary of State discusses the real-world events that inspired the film. Kubrick and Sellers get a closer look in ‘Best Sellers’ (18:27), a quick look at the legendary actor, and ‘The Art of Stanley Kubrick’ (13:50), a surprisingly thorough step-thorough of his films preceding ‘Dr. Strangelove’. The excellent set is rounded off with set of archival split-screen interviews with Sellers and Scott (7:17).