45 – Fail-Safe (1964)

And the Lord said, gentlemen, “He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone.”

Fail-Safe, written by Walter Bernstein from the novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, directed by Sidney Lumet, 1964, 110 min.

It is very hard to talk of Fail-Safe without also mentioning Dr. Strangelove. Fail-Safe has always existed in the shadow of Dr.Strangelove, which I will look at in future weeks. The similarities between the two films caused a legal storm at the time, because the basic plots are indeed copies of each other (to put it diplomatically). I am glad that audiences over the years have recognized Dr. Strangelove for what it is — an absolutely unique work of genius — but I was also deeply impressed with Fail-Safe, which is a tight story, well directed and boasts great acting. Both movies do good work in emphasizing the profound lunacy of nuclear war.

The films were put into production and released only two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, this was the height of the cold war, tensions were at their height between America and the Soviets, this is represented with themes in this movie, there is never a Soviet character seen on-screen, however we do hear their voices, there is always a ‘do we trust them element’ and a really nice scene in the film is when an American general talks to his russian counterpart over the phone, they talk of both being in England during the second world war, where they would have been on the same side, and as they speak, the American General flicks through his counterparts file, putting a face to the voice.

The film’s plot deals with the chances of accidentally starting a nuclear war, through mechanical and human error, it also deals with the first strike mentality and could you successfully win a nuclear war. There is no score for the film at all, its shot in black and white, and intentionally minimalist sets, like a stage play. There is no establishing shots, of outside the buildings, and after an initial party scene,there is no shots of normal life, this goes against a lot of the apocalyptic motifs we have already seen, and will discuss again and again, the director Sidney Lumet, uses similar techniques in other films such as twelve angry men, and dog day afternoon. Lumet knows how he wants things to look, and he sets up the shots and the actors to reflect the action, something that can easily be missed in today’s movies. As the tension and suspense grows, the shots become closer, tighter. Cuts between scenes become quicker. Every aspect of filmmaking is accounted for in this film.

The acting especially makes it worth watching. Walter Matthau, usually seen in comedic roles, is exceptional here as a war-hungry political professor. Henry Fonda, a Lumet favourite, is excellent in his role as the President, playing him with a president-next-door kind of appeal that you have to see to understand, who has to make the toughest of decisions. There are some Twilight Zone favourites of mine in here also making their big screen debuts, Frank Overton and Fritz Weaver, their story in this film could well have played out as a Twilight Zone episode on its own, you would not be surprised if Rod Serling was to appear in the corner giving a narration.

This is not a happy film, and it goes against the typical conventions that you’ve come to expect from your typical war film, or Hollywood production in general, the ending is still as unexpected today as it must have been then. The pacing, directing and acting make this a must see apocalyptic film, and I would highly recommend seeing it before the world ends.

A brilliant 1960’s trailer for Fail-Safe, I love this style of trailer

A trailer showing some of the scenes


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