Friday Flashback: Fail-Safe (1964)

At this point, it is no news that we lost one of our most gifted filmmakers this past April, when the Sidney Lumet passed away at the age of 86. With such brilliant works as 12 Angry Men, Network, The Hill, Dog Day Afternoon, The Verdict, and so many others, Lumet surely deserves to be mentioned any time we speak of cinema’s greatest film directors. The past few weeks, I went back and re-acquainted myself with a handful of his films – my own personal and quiet way of paying homage to the legend…and fell in love again with some splendid old friends. It was the haunting and compelling 1964 film Fail-Safe though that inspired me to get my ass back in gear and get back to the Magic Lantern Film site. I understand that I have not stayed on top of this blog for the past few months, but I am working my way to writing on a regular basis once again. Watching the awesome Fail-Safe once again prompted me to coming up with the “Friday Flashback” feature, where I’ll be paying tribute to some of the very best films from years past – perhaps you have seen them already…but in case you have not, consider this my way of saying to you, “You haven’t seen that one?! Rent it…now!”

In short, Fail-Safe tells the story of a fictional (but seemingly very probable) nuclear crisis during the Cold War – when tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were at their peak. Due to technical failures, mistrust, and the jamming of radio transmissions, a series of American bombers are sent to bomb the city of Moscow. With absolutely no music used throughout, the film is set in four separate locales, with only a small handful of scenes being shot elsewhere. Lumet uses a very effective minimalist approach here – and much like he did with his magnificent debut 12 Angry Men, he keeps his audience from feeling claustrophobic in such restricted settings. Because he received no help or cooperation from the U.S. Air Force whatsoever, Lumet was forced to use stock footage of planes taking off or soaring in the sky. The effect is not impressive in the least, but certainly forgivable. In the end, it doesn’t matter — as the film goes deeper and deeper, the tension continues to rise until its harrowing conclusion.

Lumet is blessed with a tremendous cast here, led by Henry Fonda as the President of the United States. Fonda is affable, but strong and almost all of his scenes are inside his bunker where he speaks on the phone with the Soviet Premier, with the help of his trusted interpreter played wonderfully by Larry Hagman. Hagman’s performance here could easily be overlooked, but he is doing so much while trying to translate the actual language in addition to capturing the Premier’s mood and tone. The Soviets are never seen in the film, but the scenes with Hagman and Fonda are fascinating to watch. Dan O’Herlihy is excellent as General Warren Black, a man with recurring nightmares and one of the military’s chief critics against nuclear armament. A young Walter Matthau is also frighteningly powerful here, playing Groeteschele, an outspoken professor with some outrageous theories about nuclear warfare.

Of course, the constant (and perhaps unfair) comparisons with Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant Dr. Strangelove will always arise. Indeed, when it was released in 1964, Fail-Safe was a box-office bomb (pun, well…intended), though it garnered glowing critical reviews. Much of this was due in part to Kubrick’s film being released first – at his insistence (no shocker there). But both films were both produced by the same studio. One went on to become known by cinephiles everywhere as one of the greatest films ever made and one of the greatest comedies of all-time…while Lumet’s film doesn’t get near the high praise it deserves. Both films tackle the same subject matter – but told in two completely different ways. I think (and I know most of my blogging brethren will shudder at the thought) that Lumet’s film is better in many aspects, though I am not making this out to be a contest. Lord knows I am a huge Kubrick fan and I put Dr. Strangelove up there with the very best. But the ending to Fail-Safe, for me, is more powerful, more gripping, and more disturbing. If you haven’t seen it and you consider yourself to be a fan of film, I would urge you to see it – and see what you think. It’s a 4-star film of the highest caliber…and one of just a handful of movie gems directed by someone who will be missed dearly.

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2 Responses to Friday Flashback: Fail-Safe (1964)

  1. Travis says:

    Completely agree with this film being better that How I learned to love the bomb, however it is almost apples-to-oranges. I am a huge fan of both, but I was blown away at how powerful Fail Safe was. I highly recommend this film especially to those of us who are educated and know a lot about history.

    • You are right – it is apples-to-oranges and silly to compare the two. But it is almost impossible NOT to because of the subject matter and when they both came out. I love both films. I was simply taken aback at how amazing Fail Safe was. And, as I mention, in SOME respects, even bests Kubrick’s piece. Thanks for reading!

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