The world trembles on the brink, and liberals are in charge! The nicest President you ever met gives the Soviet Premier an offer anybody could refuse, while technical glitches, not crazy people or radical politics, are blamed for starting WW3. Sidney Lumet’s taut, scary armageddon-outta-here thriller was weighed in the balance against a certain Stanley Kubrick film and found wanting, but unless you’re a stickler for technical details it really works up a buzz. The cast & crew list is a menu of committed liberal talent.
The Criterion Collection 1011
1964 / B&W / 1:85 widescreen / 112 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date January 28, 2020 / 39.95
Starring: Henry Fonda, Dan O’Herlihy, Walter Matthau, Frank Overton, Edward Binns, Fritz Weaver, Larry Hagman, William Hansen, Sorrell Booke, Hildy Parks, Janet Ward, Dom DeLuise, Dana Elcar.
Cinematography: Gerald Hirschfeld
Film Editor: Ralph Rosenblum
Written by Walter Bernstein from the book by Eugene Burdick, Harvey Wheeler
Produced by Max E. Youngstein
Directed by Sidney Lumet
It’s no mystery why Stanley Kubrick’s Doctor Strangelove is well known today, while Sidney Lumet’s powerful nuclear threat drama Fail Safe is remembered as a worthy also-ran. Both movies tap primal emotions re: the possibility of universal annihilation, but Kubrick and Terry Southern added a stroke of cinematic genius, introducing mainstream Hollywood to the satirical savagery of pure black comedy.
An excellent film in its own right, Fail Safe plays a nearly identical scenario completely straight. Its only departure from semi-docu realism is an isolated bad-dream metaphor taken straight from the Wheeler-Burdick best seller. Fail Safe was at a commercial disadvantage to Strangelove, being the loser in a dispute claiming that it was unofficially based on the same book Red Alert by Peter George. As part of the settlement, the independently-produced Fail Safe was given to the same studio, Columbia, for distribution, and was delayed by six months, by which time the unforgettable Strangelove had made it commercially redundant. A so-so imagined comparison might be if, six months after the big hit Airplane!, a movie appeared with the same story minus the comedy.
Fail Safe is still a sobering and thoughtful experience, a powerful thriller that fulfills the promise in its advertising tag line: “Fail Safe Will Have You Sitting On the Brink of Eternity.” The similarities with Strangelove are indeed strong. U.S. bombers of Strategic Air Command are wrongly dispatched to bomb Russia, and the President (Henry Fonda) and his advisors try but fail to recall them. Talking with the Soviet Premier on the hot line, the President instructs SAC to help the Russians shoot down the planes.
As in Strangelove, the film intercuts a few key locations. In his secret bunker below the White House, the President keeps a lonely vigil with his Russian interpreter, Buck (Larry Hagman). In SAC’s headquarter in Omaha, Nebraska, General Bogen (Frank Overton of Wild River and To Kill a Mockingbird) is present when the replacement of a defective instrument causes a sudden flash on the war room’s giant screen, the threat board, with its global projection plotting the positions of SAC’s 24-hour bomber patrols. When ordered to cooperate with the Russians, Colonel Cascio (Fritz Weaver) suffers a nervous breakdown.
In Fail Safe a single flight of six ‘Vindicator’ bombers proceeds into Russia, dispatched by a computer error obeying instructions from a code box similar to that in Dr. Strangelove. A new kind of Russian jamming prevents them from being recalled by radio. The pilot, Colonel Grady (Edward Binns of Night Moves and Without Warning!) follows orders, and refuses to acknowledge radio recall transmissions from The President, and even pleas from his own wife (the great Janet Ward, also of Arthur Penn’s Night Moves.
The alert occurs during a Pentagon policy meeting with the Secretary of Defense Swenson (William Hansen of 1776) and key generals, including General Black (Dan O’Herlihy of The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe and RoboCop). Black’s stylized nightmares bookend the movie — he dreams that he is at a corrida watching as a black bull is flayed alive in the bullring. In the book, General Black realizes that he is simultaneously the bull and the matador. The un-hawkish General voices his concern that computer technology is too fast, and taking over the decision-making process.
Fail Safe’s ‘Dr. Strangelove’ character is Dr. Groteschele (Walter Matthau), a think-tank strategist and conservative celebrity, who preaches the notion that the only way to win a nuclear war is for the U.S. to strike first. Groteschele amuses an all-night Washington D.C. party with cynical Armageddon jokes and a rebuke to German Jews that let themselves be annihilated because they were too pacifistic. Dr. Groteschele is could be a cross between Herman Kahn and Edward Teller. When he attracts a female admirer at a party, he behaves like an abusive ‘Atomic Playboy.’
The two movies’ similarity goes beyond generalities. Groteschele’s perverse sex appeal is of course mirrored by Dr. Strangelove’s visions of free love in nuclear survival bunkers. And Fail Safe mentions the possibility of a ‘doomsday device’ as well.
Unlike the manic Strangelove, with its crazy character names, goofy telephone comedy routines and disturbing changes in tone, Fail Safe stays straight and sober. It plays in the standard ‘Liberal Movie Mode’ partly established by live television shows of the ’50s, of which Sidney Lumet is a central proponent. Characters frequently acknowledge their personal emotions, and sometimes make speeches about the responsibility of the individual to society at large: “What do we say to the dead?” Fail Safe has a lot in common with Lumet’s liberal monument 12 Angry Men — both feature concerned males sitting in rooms debating emotional life-and-death issues. Leading actors Dan O’Herlihy and especially Henry Fonda are associated with liberal, progressive movies, and their characters here are humanists at heart. It could be a TV play (and became one in 2000, with George Clooney). Edward Binns’ bomber pilot Colonel Grady, a WW2 veteran, is introduced reminiscing about the lost camaraderie of Air Force fliers. General Black openly questions the military mechanics of the nuclear standoff, which frankly seems unlikely in an Air Force then commanded by General Curtis LeMay.
Henry Fonda’s President is a supreme liberal force, obsessed with fairness, earnest honesty, and sober thoughtfulness. He so strongly projects Presidential maturity and aplomb that I think viewers in ’64 wished that a man like him were in office. Today’s conservatives would likely consider President Fonda’s macabre nuclear compromise to be treason. Screening Fail Safe to a politically diverse group is guaranteed to spark a lively (read: heated, vituperative, potentially murderous) discussion.
Doctor Strangelove remains timeless because Kubrick and Southern cooly observe the insanity unleashed without taking sides. When events go out of control, Kubrick confronts us with absurdist, almost surreal black comedy skit material. Part of the tension is existential: no higher authority exists to oppose the madness. We’re stuck in a Godless dilemma, at the mercy of irrational madmen and ineffectual clowns.
Walter Bernstein’s script for Fail Safe has more warmth, but the emphasis on human emotions and tragedy is more conventional. The assembled experts in Fail Safe are not loonies or sinister death worshippers, but competent and caring professionals. Some talk about their families and their homes. General Black loves his wife, and Colonel Cascio is humiliated when General Bogen sees his sordid domestic circumstances and problem parents. Dr. Groteschele is not a weird German Expressionist cartoon like Dr. Strangelove. In ‘liberal movie’ terms, he’s there to present a viewpoint that the authors consider dangerous. Whether we judge him an opportunist or a pragmatist, Groteschele is rational and reasonable. After saying his piece, he accepts The President’s decisions.
Both Fail Safe and Strangelove carry text disclaimers saying that the U.S. asserts that the accidental wars we see could never happen. Although the facts were not widely known in 1964, many of the details of SAC’s functions are fictitious. For instance, the B-58 bombers shown in the movie hadn’t the range to attack Moscow without refueling. Of course, in 1964 SAC was flying B-52’s, that could.
Director Lumet’s style is clean and dynamic; the show concentrates on several groups of men in confined spaces. The Omaha SAC room, with its Mission Control- like desks before a movie-like global projection screen, can’t hold a candle to Ken Adam’s superb round-table design for Strangelove. Both are movie fantasies, but Fail Safe’s looks a little impractical. The technicians’ functions are unclear; men monitor tape memory banks with nothing to do. When alarms sound, more technicians and security men enter automatically from hidden anterooms, as if awaiting cues to join the fun. Theatrically speaking it’s fine, but it’s as vague as the cockpit in Colonel Grady’s ‘Vindicator’ bomber, which pales beside Strangelove’s utterly convincing B-52 interior. Of course, the wide-angle handheld camerawork in Kubrick’s film adds to the realism, too.
Lumet uses many close shots that emphasize quiet anguish. Henry Fonda’s scenes become a study of his features under pressure, often in extreme close-up. The semi-docu scenes in the war room, the Pentagon conference room and The President’s bunker are not too extravagant: all the money seems to have gone into the (for 1964) impressively sophisticated giant projections on the ‘global threat board.’ The film’s extras tell us that the aircraft-plotting projections were actually film animations created by John and Faith Hubley’s Animation Studio, adding another level of liberal anti-blacklist talent to Fail Safe.
Noted editor Ralph Rosenblum (The Night They Raided Minsky’s, most of Woody Allen’s early pictures) wrote in his memoir that Fail Safe’s odd-looking cutaways to jet planes were due to a lack of cooperation from the Pentagon. This is likely why the current B-52s do not appear. Rosenblum worked with a very limited number of stock shots of B-58s taking off and cruising, reprinting and re-framing the same shots over and over. Most are printed in negative, suggesting night but also putting them at a stylistic remove, in an ‘alien’ zone. Accompanied by bursts of jet engine roars, the brief cutaways are jarring, almost frightening. Ironically, Doctor Strangelove’s effects are less impressive simply because they look like typical artificial special effects of the day, with miniature B-52s and rear-projected aerials.
Editor Rosenblum also fashioned the disturbing matador nightmare (with subtle optical overlays) and the quick-cut ‘ultimate disaster’ finale stressing the human cost of a dreaded nuclear attack. Rosenblum should get full credit for fashioning the film’s gripping finale, unless the original screenplay spells out every optical smash zoom and freeze frame. Offhand, I can’t think of a precedent for that editorial trick, which was still effective twenty years later in the TV presentation The Day After.
Criterion’s extras try to pull Lumet’s atom-threat film out from the shadow of Mr. Kubrick’s more famous effort. There is little no discussion of the differences that make Doctor Strangelove a classic and Fail Safe a secondary footnote. Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern put the blame where it belongs, asserting that mortals are just too unreliable (crazy, actually) to properly monitor complex and unforgiving weapons systems. The machines and planes in Strangelove function just as they are supposed to, but Kubrick’s soldiers and diplomats are their own worst enemy: they’re variously immature, unimaginative, paranoid … or just plain mad.
As does its book source, Fail Safe asserts instead that computer technology is the main culprit. Like a homeowner that don’t understand the plumbing, General Bogen and Colonel Cascio have no answers when a electronic failure and/or enemy jamming causes the transmission of an irrevocable attack signal. The ‘expert’ on the subject is a humble war room tech (Dom DeLuise!) who has no answers either. Apparently nobody really has a grip on the high-tech equipment, not even its manufacturer, who is coincidentally on-site during the alert. We’re told with a sigh that, gee, ‘sometimes electronic components just get tired.’
The bottom line is that Fail Safe is actually less realistic than Kubrick and Southern’s movie. Authors Wheeler and Burdick invented an unexplained technical coincidence that launches an irrevocable attack signal. Strangelove more realistically points to the unreliability of the human element. Don’t forget that all those generals, think tank strategists and systems engineers saw Doctor Strangelove and Fail Safe too. The military now likely has all the safeguards it needs, save for the ability to restrain the Commander-in-Chief. What’s more immediately credible is that some madman, or perhaps even an incompetent could launch missiles by accident in a moment of crisis — the scenario presented in Kubrick associate James B. Harris’s thriller The Bedford Incident.
This is the movie to see if you want old-fashioned nail-biting tension. The horror is that the ‘combat’ part of the equation goes flawlessly. Thanks to the resourceful professionalism of the attack commanders Major Kong and Colonel Grady, the bombs get through even though both sides are trying to shoot them down. But who gets to boast, ‘Mission Accomplished?’
The acting is excellent. Young Larry Hagman is appropriately nervous, and Fonda and O’Herlihy’s playing is so good that their awful ‘Sacrifice of Abraham’ action at the finish seems like the only way to avoid The Apocalypse. The movie earns extra points for the creative video-like projections on the giant view screen, and Ralph Rosenblum’s tight, creative editing. But Fail Safe didn’t get the breaks — I imagine that the first words spoken by most everyone who saw it were, “I liked Doctor Strangelove more.”
A Sidebar Discussion: has anybody else read The Fail Safe Fallacy?
The disc makes no mention of a popular pamphlet circulated in 1963 to rebut the book Fail Safe, called The Fail Safe Fallacy. It must have been readily available because at age 12 I bought a copy at an ordinary newsstand, read it and believed it. Written by Sidney Hook, the pamphlet points to weaknesses in the book’s logic. I remember that its arguments refuted the book’s assessment that computerized fail-safe systems and procedures would by their very nature be prone to break down and do things like send out erroneous attack orders. The Fail Safe Fallacy argues that that makes no logical sense, that the book is an ill-informed ‘don’t trust science’ screed against SAC’s preparations. The necessary secrecy of SAC’s defenses naturally creates concern. I may not like the Air Force’s Mutually Assured Destruction policy, but you can bet that their engineers would make damn sure that accidental and unauthorized attacks were nigh-impossible.
The pamphlet also criticizes the film’s political finale. Sidney Hook asserts that the Soviets would never demand that the U.S. bomb one of its own cities to even the score. Hook suggests that the Russians would instead demand a full strategic withdrawal of U.S. forces all over the world, and other diplomatic & political concessions. This prediction of ‘what the Soviets would do’ reads like one of Dr. Groteschele’s ideological projections, that all conclude with a recommendation to attack first and accept a few million nuclear casualties. I now know more about Sidney Hook’s general outlook. His other notable political book was Heresy, Yes-Conspiracy, No. According to Wikipedia, it provided “perhaps the most influential justification for firing Communists and suspected Communists from university and schools in the early 1950s.”
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Fail Safe is said to be a new 4K digital restoration. It looks great in this HD scan, that restores the semi-docu look of cameraman Gerald Hirschfeld (The Incident, Last Summer). I’ve seen the picture innumerable times over the years, mostly in so-so open-matte prints that compromise Hirschfeld’s handsome compositions. The show’s distinctive look has been recovered. Its sound editing is almost as good.
Criterion’s extras augment existing items from 2000. Sidney Lumet contributes an audio commentary, and appears in a featurette piece, interviewed along with screenwriter Walter Bernstein, and actor Dan O’Herlihy. All three are quite articulate about the film’s subject and the politics of its making. The new item is an interview with favorite critic J. Hoberman (Army of Phantoms, The Dream Life) on Fail Safe’s context of nuclear paranoia during the Cold War. An insert foldout contains a thoughtful essay by film critic Bilge Ebiri.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: Audio commentary (2000) with Sidney Lumet; Fail Safe Revisited, 2000 featurette with Lumet, screenwriter Walter Bernstein, and actor Dan O’Herlihy; new interview with J. Hoberman; insert essay by Bilge Ebiri.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: January 16, 2020
Text © Copyright 2020 Glenn Erickson
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