“Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind.”
In 1963, independent producer Max Youngstein began production of a film based on the novel “Fail-Safe” by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler. Directing was Sidney Lumet and preparing the screenplay was Walter Bernstein who had been blacklisted in the 1950s. Lumet was strongly attached to working in New York (as his later career would continue to demonstrate) and he chose to film at the Fox Studio there. The largest set ever constructed in the east was that done for Fail-Safe.
The film, however, suffered setbacks from the start. The budget was not high and shooting had to be done quickly and efficiently. Only 32 days with no allowance for overtime were budgeted for, but miraculously met through the combined efforts of Lumet, his crew and the cast. There was a complete lack of cooperation from the armed forces so the Pentagon and Omaha sets had to be constructed without any idea of what the actual locations looked like other than suggestions that could be gleaned from published material and interviews. Even access to stock footage of aircraft was effectively cut off so that it was only with some ingenuity that it was possible to include appropriate aircraft images in the final film. Finally, Columbia and the producers of Dr. Strangelove, a film based on the book “Red Alert” with a similar premise to that of “Fail-Safe” sued the authors of the latter for plagiarism. An out-of-court settlement saw Columbia end up with control of the distribution rights to both films. Columbia chose to release Dr. Strangelove first in 1964, and being a darkly satiric view of the issue, its appearance diminished substantially the impact that Fail-Safe would have when it opened in New York later that year.
Columbia has now released Fail-Safe on DVD as a Special Edition.
Due to apparent machine error, a flight of Strategic Air Command (SAC) bombers originating in Alaska and carrying nuclear bombs is allowed to pass the geographic fail-safe limits and consequently is headed on a course to attack Russia. Initial efforts to call the bombers back are unsuccessful.
Dealing with the problem are the President of the United States and his translator Buck who are located in the presidential bunker; the staff at SAC Headquarters in Omaha; and a group at the Pentagon including the Secretary of Defense, various military personnel, and visiting political scientist Groeteschele.
As various options for aborting the mission fail, the President contacts his Soviet counterpart in an effort to forestall outright war. But in the end, he is forced into a terrible decision.
Fail-Safe was and remains a real crackerjack of a film. It is an uncompromising look at the folly of total reliance on machines at a time when the smallest error can have catastrophic consequences. Today, we live in an age when the world has taken a small step back from the game of nuclear brinksmanship that characterized the 1950s and ’60s, although the threat of isolated nuclear terrorism is still very real. Even in such a climate, the situation portrayed in Fail-Safe still seems frighteningly possible, so at the time of its original release, one can only imagine its effect on thinking people. By dint of its basic plausibility, its suspenseful script, and the uniform excellence of its cast, it is the epitome of cold war films, nowadays surpassing in impact other contemporary efforts such as Dr. Strangelove (1964, Columbia) and The Bedford Incident (1965, Columbia).
The cast is uniformly excellent from top to bottom. In the presidential bunker, Henry Fonda as the President gives one of those portrayals that makes you wish he really were President. He brings just the right blend of gravity and humanity to the role, although for Fonda, his work is no more than one might expect from such an accomplished performer. As Buck, Larry Hagman looks startlingly youthful and trim, and almost awestruck at the part he must play in the drama — far from the well-fed, self-satisfied look he always cultivated on “Dallas” and later similar portrayals. Yet the later mannerisms, such as the blink of the eyes, are very much in evidence in his portrayal of Buck. It’s a difficult role, attempting to relay a running translation to Fonda of what the Soviet Premier is saying as the two leaders converse on the phone. Through a blend of facial expression, voice inflection, and halting speech, Hagman handles it with authority and believability.
In the Pentagon war room, Walter Matthau plays scientist Groeteschele. As one so used to the standard Matthau comedic persona, it is a revelation to see him here playing a completely straight dramatic role. His Groeteschele is a dark individual with a cold analyticalness to him that is soon unmasked to reveal a streak of fanaticism. Counterbalancing him is Dan O’Herlihy as Colonel Warren Black who is a voice of reason throughout. More than that, though, the Black character is a framing device for the entire film. It is his recurring nightmare that opens the film and it is the reality of that nightmare that ends it. O’Herlihy’s work in Fail-Safe is among the finest of his 50-year film and television acting career.
At SAC headquarters in Omaha, both Frank Overton and Fritz Weaver are memorable as senior air force officials dealing with the crisis, and in Anchorage, familiar Ed Binns is effective as the pilot of the lead aircraft.
Beyond the performers, the most striking aspect of the film is the atmosphere it creates. The film’s premise of a situation apparently beyond human ability to correct, a situation brought about by almost blind reliance on machines, is appropriately presented in an environment that appears to lack any of the touches of warmth that human intervention might normally provide. The film is in black and white; it’s lit from above or the sides creating a stark, sterile environment, and completely devoid of any musical sound track. This look and feel is uniformly maintained throughout the duration of the film as well as at all its locations. In fact, there is much about Fail Safe that is suggestive of film noir, from the visual style to the mental distress of the principal characters — a distress that plunges them increasingly into the unknown because they apparently cannot control its source.
Columbia’s Special Edition DVD of Fail-Safe is a winner! Don’t let the initial images of Colonel Black’s nightmare sequence with its intended almost-surreal look mislead you; this is a top-notch transfer. It’s sharp and clear with deep blacks and clean whites, yet with shadow detail well rendered. There’s little in the way of grain or age artifacts; what exists is generally associated with some of the stock footage that had to be employed for some of the air sequences. The image is presented in anamorphic widescreen only, with 28 scene selections, and preserves the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Sound is Dolby Digital mono delivering this dialogue-rich film clearly throughout with virtually no evidence of age-related background hiss. There is a director’s commentary by Sidney Lumet that is one of the better commentaries I’ve heard. Lumet provides a wealth of background material as well as discussion of technique. There’s little in the way of simple narration of what’s going on on-screen; Lumet prefers to use the events as jumping-off points to talk about the players or production events.
A sixteen-minute featurette called “Fail-Safe Revisited” features comments by director Sidney Lumet, screenwriter Walter Bernstein, actor Dan O’Herlihy, and actor George Clooney. The piece is an informative overview of the production, if a little repetitive at least in terms of what Lumet has to say compared to his commentary track. George Clooney’s comments are included on the featurette because he had become quite enamored of Fail-Safe, so much so that he produced a live television version of the story on CBS earlier this year — an effort that was very successful.
Columbia’s disc also includes some abbreviated cast and crew notes, the original theatrical trailer presented full screen, trailers for three other war films, and two pages of production notes as part of the DVD’s insert.
Columbia missed an opportunity to make this disc a truly great one by not including Clooney’s 2000 television version on it. Clooney’s version is available separately from Warner Home Video, but only in region 2. But Columbia has cooperated with Warners in the past in terms of their Kubrick discs, so one likes to think that something to allow the 1964 and 2000 versions of Fail-Safe to appear together might have been worked out. Of course, maybe it was considered but just not possible for good reason, but one wonders.
Also, I do wish that the studios would get serious with the crew and cast notes. Either deliver something complete and comprehensive, or don’t bother with anything. It’s not as though the information isn’t readily available out there.
Fail-Safe is a winner. The story is first-class — well-acted and tightly directed with noteworthy production design; it stands up very well. Columbia’s Special Edition DVD is also a winner with an excellent looking and sounding transfer and informative supplementary material. It misses an opportunity to be great by not including the 2000 live television version, although if considered, this may have been beyond Columbia’s control. Highly recommended.