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DVD Review: Dr. Strangelove (40th Anniversary Special Edition)

By Glenn Abel

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photo Talk about nuclear proliferation -- "Dr. Strangelove" is back on DVD, making its fifth appearance in that video format's relatively short life.

Columbia's "40th Anniversary Special Edition" of Stanley Kubrick's blackest of black comedies targets households bunkered for the widescreen age. The primary upgrades are the high-definition transfer (its first) and -- more dramatically -- a re-engineering into 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen.

Aspect ratios usually don't draw attention, but "Strangelove" is a special and controversial case. The previous Columbia DVD, released in 2001 (included in Warner Bros.' "Stanley Kubrick Collection"), followed specs issued by the director. Kubrick's home-vid vision -- presumably influenced by VHS and the square TVs that still dominated in the 1990s -- was mostly full screen (1.33:1) with some slight ratio adjustments. Criterion's marvelous laserdisc of 1992 shifted between 1.66 and 1.33, again per Kubrick.

Columbia's latest thinking was to redeploy "Strangelove" in its "correct" original British theatrical widescreen ratio of 1.66, providing consistent dimensions scene-to-scene as in 1964.

A direct comparison of the 2001 DVD and the new disc reveals a lot of lost visual information, some significant. Consider, for example, the early scene in which Gen. Turgidson (George C. Scott) informs the president (Peter Sellers) that a renegade general has initiated a nuclear strike on Russia. In the new version, in front of Scott is a file or something called "Megadeath." In the older ratio, it's quite clearly the book "World Targets in Megadeaths." The effect on compositions inside on Ken Adam's famed War Room set ranges from insignificant to dramatic when A-B'd.

What would the master director have demanded had he lived into the age of hiply horizontal plasma monitors? Who knows -- Kubrick fans and video purists still are fighting it out in the War Room chat room.

Sony Pictures Entertainment restoration guru Grover Crisp says "no disrespect" was intended to Kubrick's wishes.

He told thedigitalbits.com, "Since we were going to retransfer the film for the first time in HD, we decided it was time to create a video version in the correct theatrical aspect ratio in addition to the familiar TV-safe full-frame version that has been released before."

The transfer holds other surprises. The new version is markedly darker at the expense of imagery previously much more brightly cast. The older versions tended toward coarse, blown-out contrasts, however, and many viewers will appreciate the new more elegant and sinister look. Sony's restorers were able to exterminate a lot of the debris evident on the older DVD, even though they used materials several generations away from the mother negative (the original is long gone).

Columbia's latest "Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" (retail $34.95) throws in a second disc, some of the bonus materials new, some recycled.

The 30-minute featurette "No Fighting in the War Room" recruits the Washington Post's Bob Woodward and 1960s Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

Woodward says that "Strangelove's" cautionary message remains valid: "I think we're always close (to nuclear war) because of an accident, a mistake, somebody crazy in the system."

McNamara's doesn't seem all that interested in talking about the movie, but says there was "no question" its apocalyptic scenario could have played out. McNamara says false and confusing radar signals of incoming missiles occurred with some regularity on his watch. Most of his comments about the Cold War will be familiar to viewers of Errol Morris' docu "The Fog of War," but those who can't get enough of the old man should check out the "Strangelove" extras' 24-minute interview. (If nothing else, it elicits greater appreciation for Morris' talking-head film.)

Kubrick's partner James Harris says the director was obsessed by the Cold War peril and became an expert on nuclear brinkmanship: "Stanley had a strong feeling that ... some maniac might start WWIII."

Also weighing in are Spike Lee and Roger Ebert, both of whom seem to suspect Dr. Strangelove's progeny are alive and well in government.

The new 18-minute "Best Sellers" does a surprisingly good job racing through the career of Sellers, who of course played three roles in the film: the president, a stunned military officer and Dr. Strangelove. (Sellers almost played a fourth part, the bomber commander role that went to cowboy Slim Pickens.)

Sellers "was many people all the time," says Shirley MacLaine, who starred with him in "Being There." "I had kind of a sense he was afraid of all the people he was."

The 45-minute "Inside 'Dr. Strangelove,' " a solid holdover, covers the film's transition from dramatic novel to black comedy script; the legal battles with Henry Fonda's "Fail Safe"; and the War Room pie fight that initially closed the film. The "most famous unseen scene in film history" was pulled at the last minute, possibly in reaction to the JFK assassination because it had a line about the president being mortally wounded. (A Pickens line about partying in Dallas was dubbed to instead say Vegas).

A Kubrick bio shamelessly tries to get the job done in 12 minutes. It includes Kirk Douglas' "Spartacus"-era summation of Kubrick: "A talented shit."

The hip and innovative marketing campaign for "Strangelove" gets its due both in the featurettes and an ad gallery.

Audio options are Dolby Digital, DTS and mono, all solid choices, but don't expect much from the 40-year-old sound. (Kubrick wanted you to hear it in mono.) The 5.1 formats add some rear-channel rattle and hum from the bombers and some echoes, but the sound mostly holds its center-channel position. All that great dialogue from Kubrick and Terry Southern is crystal clear, an upgrade from the 2001 version, which sounds a bit hollow.

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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