Director: Sidney Lumet
Screenplay: Walter Bernstein (based on the novel by Eugene Burdick & Harvey Wheeler)
Stars: Henry Fonda (The President), Dan O’Herlihy (Brigadier General Warren A. “Blackie” Black), Walter Matthau (Professor Groeteschele), Frank Overton (General Bogan), Fritz Weaver (Colonel Cascio), Edward Binns (Colonel Jack Grady), Larry Hagman (Buck), William Hansen (Defense Secretary Swenson), Russell Hardie (General Stark), Russell Collins (Gordon Knapp), Sorrell Booke (Congressman Raskob), Nancy Berg (Ilsa Woolfe)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1964
Country: U.S.

One of the best things I can say about Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe is that, by about the midway point, I had (mostly) stopped thinking about Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). And I get it—that’s not fair. Fail-Safe, from the time of its release in October 1964, has always suffered in comparison to Kubrick’s blackly comic Cold War masterpiece, which Kubrick insisted be released first (both were produced by Columbia Pictures). Although based on different novels, both films have virtually identical plots and nearly indistinguishable narrative beats that tapped a mainline vein of shared paranoia about worldwide nuclear annihilation (it was only two years since the Cuban Missile Crisis, after all). Kubrick, after trying and failing to play the material straight, instead went the route of dark satire, whereas Lumet and screenwriter Walter Bernstein (a television veteran who was just emerging from a decade of being blacklisted) stuck with the straight and narrow, playing out the story of a nuclear stand-off between the United States and the Soviet Union with grim seriousness. Kubrick claimed he couldn’t make it work that way; the material was just too absurd to be taken seriously. Lumet, to his credit, proved Kubrick wrong.

Fail-Safe was based on the 1962 novel of the same title by two political science professors, Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler. The plot revolves around a horrible “what-if?” scenario: What if nuclear war were triggered between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. due to a technical malfunction? In this case, the malfunction involves a failed communication to a squadron of American B-52 bombers that have been sent to their “fail-safe” point just outside the border of the Soviet Union. Instead of ordering them to return to base, the communication delivers to them a special attack code to drop nuclear bombs on major Soviet targets (including Moscow). The bombers are under strict instruction not to reply to any communication once the attack code had been transmitted (to avoid the attack being falsely called off by the Soviets), so recalling them after that point is all but impossible. This puts the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. in a virtually impossible situation in which the former has essentially launched an unprovoked attack on the latter, who can do almost nothing about it. The Soviets can try to shoot down all the bombers, but it is highly likely that at least one of them will get through and deliver its payload on Moscow, killing millions of people instantly.

As in Kubrick’s film, different characters reflect different perspectives on handling Cold War tensions. The voice of reason is the U.S. President, who is played with a sense of dignity, restraint, and honor (think the opposite of Donald Trump) by Peter Fonda, that great icon of fundamental American decency. The President spends most of the film inside a bunker under the White House with a Russian translator named Buck (Larry Hagman) on the phone with the Soviet premier, trying to convince him that the attack was not intended and helping the Soviet forces shoot down all the American planes before they can drop their bombs. Meanwhile, in the war room at the Pentagon, there is an ongoing struggle between Brigadier General Warren A. “Blackie” Black (Dan O’Herlihy), a close friend and confidant of the President’s who represents military and political sanity, and Colonel Cascio (Fritz Weaver), who is convinced that the whole situation is an elaborate ruse created by the Soviets to trick them into striking first and therefore justifying all-out nuclear war. And, constantly in the background is Professor Groeteschele (Walter Matthau), a grim political science professor and hawkish advisor to the Pentagon who is sure that this is a golden opportunity for the U.S. to wipe out the Soviet Union. The dispassion with which he discusses collateral damage in the millions is genuinely unnerving (Matthau delivers the film’s best performance, a far cry from the bumbling comic roles for which he would later be known).

Lumet, who had recently moved from television to helming critically acclaimed features like Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962) and The Pawnbroker (1964), was an ideal director for the material; he carefully balances the big-picture doomsday scenario with a tight focus on the individual characters. The film is replete with intense moments and a grueling accumulation of suspense, as it becomes more and more likely that the worst-case scenario will be realized, thus putting fundamentally decent men into the position of having to make horrific choices to stave off even worse possibilities. Lumet and cinematographer Gerald Hirschfeld (Last Summer, Young Frankenstein) keep the film’s visuals fairly straightforward, although they throw in a few showy aesthetic twists, such as focusing at one point on the President’s off-center eye in a tense moment or ending the film on a series of sudden zooms into still images that make abundantly clear the potential price of playing nuclear roulette. Fail-Safe doesn’t pull any of its punches, and it has the strength of its own convictions to see things through the logical end, horrible though it may be. The end of Dr. Strangelove is, of course, worse in its way, but I wasn’t (really) thinking about that until long after the credits had ended.

Fail-Safe Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Audio commentary from 2000 by director Sidney Lumet
  • Video interview with film critic J. Hoberman
  • Fail Safe Revisited” retrospective featurette from 2000
  • Essay by film critic Bilge Ebiri
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJanuary 28, 2020

    The image on Criterion’s Blu-ray comes from a new 4K digital scan of the original 35mm camera negative by Sony Pictures Entertainment, with subsequent digital restoration being performed by Cineric. The result is a very strong image that maintains an excellent filmlike quality. The black-and-white cinematography is sharp and crisp and brimming with detail, especially in the war room set. The use of stock footage of planes is quite obvious, as the quality and intensified grain structure stand out quite a bit, but that is to be expected (the military was not willing to work with the production at all—for obvious reasons). The remastered monaural soundtrack, which is presented in a lossless PCM Linear track, is clean and clear. The film is primarily dialogue and ambient sound effects, and it all comes through very nicely. Most of the supplements are repeats from Columbia’s 2000 DVD edition, which include an always intriguing audio commentary by director Sidney Lumet and “Fail Safe Revisited,” a 20-minute retrospective featurette that includes then-new interviews with Lumet, screenwriter Walter Bernstein, actor Dan O’Herlihy, and a very young-looking George Clooney, who had just executive produced a made-for-television remake. The only new supplement is a 20-minute video interview with film critic J. Hoberman, who discusses 1960s nuclear paranoia and Cold War films that came both before and after Fail-Safe.

    Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection and Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

    James Kendrick offers, exclusively on Qnetwork, over 2,500 reviews on a wide range of films. All films have a star rating and you can search in a variety of ways for the type of movie you want. If you're just looking for a good movie, then feel free to browse our library of Movie Reviews.

    © 1998 - 2024 - All logos and trademarks in this site are the property of their respective owner.