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As an unidentified aircraft approaches the U.S., the Air Force sends fighter planes to intercept it and prepare for retaliatory action. Recall orders go out when the plane is identified, but one squadron mistakenly receives an attack order that can't be rescinded once they enter Soviet air space, where radio reception is jammed. With no way of bringing the planes back, politicians, military and scientists debate whether to launch a preemptive strike, try to take down our own planes or find some way to appease the Soviets should any of the nuclear warheads make it through.
Director: Sidney Lumet
Producer: Max E. Youngstein
Screenplay: Walter Bernstein
Based on the novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey WheelerCinematography: George Hirschfeld
Editing: Ralph Rosenblum
Art Direction: Albert Brenner
Cast: Dan O'Herlihy (Gen. Black), Walter Matthau (Groeteschele), Frank Overton (Gen. Bogan), Edward Binns (Col. Grady), Fritz Weaver (Col. Cascio), Henry Fonda (The President), Larry Hagman (Buck), Russell Hardie (Gen. Stark), Russell Collins (Knapp), Sorrell Booke (Cong. Raskob), Hildy Parks (Betty Black), Janet Ward (Mrs. Grady), Dom DeLuise (Sgt. Collins), Dana Elcar (Foster)
Why FAIL SAFE is Essential
Fail Safe is a key work in a genre of films exploring the destructive potential of nuclear warfare and, with Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, one of two features that made 1964 the most important year for the genre. Starting with The Beginning or the End (1947), MGM's fictionalized depiction of the events leading to the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Japan, the genre has encompassed semi-documentaries, serious dramas and, in the case of Dr. Strangelove, outrageous comedy. For most of the '50s, it was dominated by low-budget science fiction films exploiting the action and horror elements of life after a nuclear holocaust, though Arch Oboler's Five (1951) and Stanley Kramer's On the Beach (1959) attempted more thoughtful treatments of post-nuclear landscapes. Although many such films captured the sense of humanity being destroyed by its own creations, Fail Safe is the only one to create a realistic, believable buildup to a nuclear exchange triggered by a series of equipment malfunctions. After the box office success of Dr. Strangelove and the failure of Fail Safe later the same year, the genre began to die out in 1965.
Made after his adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962), the film marked director Sidney Lumet's transition from films adapted from plays, which corresponded closely to his early work in television, to films adapted from novels. As such, it bridges his more cinematic work on later films like The Pawnbroker (1964), Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and Network (1976) with his earlier work which, though using dynamic editing and camera techniques, was usually filmed on very limited sets. Like his theatrical adaptations -- including his debut film, 12 Angry Men (1957) -- Fail Safe uses a small number of sets, mostly interiors, brought to life by the director's ingenuity.
Fail Safe was the last of Lumet's films before the box office successes of The Pawnbroker and The Hill (1965) moved him into the ranks of Hollywood's top directors.
Lumet borrowed several camera techniques and effects previously used only in independent or foreign films for Fail Safe. Among them were zoom shots within scenes, freeze frames and negative images.
This was one of the last films in which Walter Matthau played a villain before rising to stardom with his comic supporting performance in The Fortune Cookie (1966), for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar®. Prior to that, the New York-trained actor was mostly cast in parts that used his height (6'3") and craggy face as a source of menace. Among the leading players he threatened in his career as a supporting actor were Elvis Presley in King Creole (1958) and Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant in Charade (1963).
Comic Dom DeLuise, later a mainstay of Burt Reynolds' films, and stage star Fritz Weaver made their film debuts in Fail Safe. It also contained one of Larry Hagman's first notable performances before he rose to television stardom with I Dream of Jeannie and Dallas.
by Frank Miller
Fail Safe (1964)
The "Daisy" ad aired as part of Lyndon Johnson's 1964 presidential campaign used a zoom-in on the face of a young girl playing that resembles the final shot of Fail Safe.
In the 1981 SCTV Network episode "CCCP 1," the Soviet Union takes over SCTV's satellite transmission, leading to a tense conversation between the U.S. president and the Soviet premiere that climaxes with the Soviets bombing New York City.
In the 1985 re-make of the Twilight Zone episode "A Little Peace and Quiet," Fail Safe is shown on a movie marquee as the U.S. is hit by a nuclear attack.
Fail Safe was remade as a live television movie in 2000, produced by George Clooney. Stephen Frears directed a cast including Richard Dreyfuss as the President, Noah Wyle as his translator, Brian Dennehy, Sam Elliott, James Cromwell, Hank Azaria, Norman Lloyd, Don Cheadle, Clooney and Harvey Keitel. Walter Cronkite hosted the black-and-white telecast.
In Watchmen (2009), Adrian Veidt (the superhero Ozymandias), watches the film on one of his TV monitors.
by Frank Miller
Fail Safe (1964)
FUN FACTS AND TRIVIA on FAIL SAFE (1964)
The film uses no background music at all. Many critics praised the impressive use of silence between speeches.
To make the President's phone seem more ominous, Lumet used a larger model created for explosives companies to communicate during demolitions jobs.
The impressive zoom shot from the satellite was created by mounting a camera on a V2 rocket launched from White Sands, NM, and then running the film backwards.
Fail Safe did not do well at the box office, primarily because the earlier release of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) blunted its impact, making nuclear warfare seem more a subject for dark humor than serious drama.
Although completed before Dr. Strangelove, Fail Safe sat on the shelf for months so Columbia could release the other film sooner. Dr. Strangelove opened to mostly glowing reviews and strong box office in January 1964.
Fail Safe premiered at the second New York Film Festival in August 1964. Although the New York Times' Bosley Crowther, who had hated Dr. Strangelove, gave it a rave, many other critics felt the earlier film, with its comic tone, had stolen much of the Lumet picture's thunder.
Some critics also noted that by the time of the film's release, some of its technology was outdated. In particular, the U.S. had developed in-flight radio transmissions that could not be jammed, making the bombers' inability to receive the abort command impossible.
Audiences also compared the two different films, with many refusing to take Fail Safe seriously because of its comic predecessor. Henry Fonda would later say he could not have played the tense, dramatic phone conversations with the Soviet Premier had he seen Peter Sellers' performance as the president in Dr. Strangelove first.
Columbia sold Fail Safe with the tagline, "It will have you sitting on the brink of eternity!"
Famous Quotes from FAIL SAFE
"They're good men, we've seen to that. If their orders are attack, the only way you're going to stop them is to shoot them down."
"We've got no alternative! This minute the Russians are watching their boards, trying to figure out what we're up to. If we can't convince them it's an accident we're trying to correct by any means, we're going to have something on our hands nobody bargained for, and only a lunatic wants!" -- Russell Hardie, as General Stark, and Dan O'Herlihy, as General Black.
"I want to know...what you think he's feeling; it's important that we understand each other." -- Henry Fonda, as the President, instructing Larry Hagman, as Russian interpreter Buck, on how to translate the Soviet Premier's calls.
"Mr. Secretary, I am convinced that the moment the Russians know bombs will fall on Moscow, they will surrender. They know that whatever they do then, they cannot escape destruction. Don't you see, sir, this is our chance. We never would have made the first move deliberately, but Group 6 has made it for us, by accident. We must take advantage of it -- history demands it. We must advise the President not to recall those planes." -- Walter Matthau, as Prof. Groeteschele.
"We don't go in for sneak attacks. We had that done to us at Pearl Harbor."
"And the Japanese were right to do it. From their point of view, we were their mortal enemy. As long as we existed, we were a threat to them. Their only mistake was that they failed to finish us at the start, and they paid for that mistake at Hiroshima." -- Hardie, as General Stark, debating Matthau, as Prof. Groeteschele.
"Where do you draw the line once you know what the enemy is? How long would the Nazis have kept it up, General, if every Jew they came after had met them with a gun in his hand? But I learned from them, General Black. Oh, I have learned."
"You learned too well, Professor. You learned so well that now there's no difference between you and what you want to kill." -- Matthau, as Groeteschele, debating O'Herlihy, as General Black."This crisis of ours -- this accident as you say....In one way it's no man's fault. No human being made any mistake, and there's no point in trying to place the blame on anyone....This disappearance of human responsibility is one of the most disturbing aspects of the whole thing. It's as if human beings had evaporated, and their places were taken by computers. And all day you and I have sat here, fighting, not each other, but rather the big rebellious computerized system, struggling to keep it from blowing up the world."
"It is true, Mr. President. Today the whole world could have been burned without any man being given a chance to have a say in it." -- Fonda, as the President, to the Soviet Premier, translated by Hagman, as Buck.
"I can hear the sound of explosions from the north east. The sky is very bright. All lit up." -- Last words of U.S. Ambassador to Moscow.
"General Stark, are there any papers or documents in New York which are absolutely essential to running the United States?" -- William Hansen as Defense Secretary Swenson.
"I've been making a few rough calculations based on the effect of two twenty megaton bombs dropped on New York City in the middle of a normal workday. I estimate the immediate dead at about three million. I include in that figure those buried beneath the collapsed buildings. It would make no difference, Admiral Wilcox, whether they reached a shelter or not. They would die just the same. Add another million or two who will die within about five weeks. Now our immediate problem will be the joint one of fire control and excavation. Excavation not of the dead, the effort would be wasted there. But even though there are no irreplaceable government documents in the city, many of our largest corporations keep their records there. It will be necessary to... rescue as many of those records as we can. Our economy depends on this. [walking back to his seat] Our economy depends on this. And the Lord said, gentlemen, 'He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone.'" -- Matthau.
"How did you get to be a translator, Buck? You don't seem the academic type."
"I guess I have a talent for languages, sir. I hear a language once, I pick it right up. I don't even know how. They found out about it in the Army."
"You sound sorry they did."
"No, sir. It's a very interesting job. That is, most of the time."
"Well, you did a good job today, Buck."
"Thank you, sir. All I did was repeat what he said."
"You didn't freeze up. Another man might have.
"You're the one who didn't, sir."
"I wonder what it's like outside? Looked like rain before."
"The radio said it would clear by the afternoon." -- Fonda and Hagman.
"The Matador, the Matador...me...me." -- O'Herlihy, as Black, speaking the film's last lines.
"The producers of this film wish to stress that it is the stated position of the Department of Defense and the United States Air Force that a rigidly enforced system of safeguards and controls insure that occurrences such as those depicted in this story cannot happen." -- Final credit.
Compiled by Frank Miller
Fail Safe (1964)
Political science scholars Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler's novel Fail Safe first appeared in 1962, at about the same time as the Cuban Missile Crisis was pushing the U.S. to the brink of nuclear war. It was originally serialized in The Saturday Evening Post before coming out as a book. Their taut writing, the story's timeliness and the controversy over nuclear disarmament then raging, helped propel it to best-seller status, with more than two million copies sold.
Peter George, who had written the 1958 anti-nuclear novel Red Alert, saw so many similarities between the two books he sued for plagiarism. Although the suit was settled out of court, the earlier book would return to haunt Fail Safe as it made its way to the screen.
With the book's best-seller status and timely topic, Fail Safe seemed a natural for the movies. But any bidding war over the rights was squashed by a rumor that President Lyndon B. Johnson did not want a film made (this was not true but a falsehood that was generated by Henry Fonda, who had friends in the administration). Ultimately, Sidney Lumet and producer Max E. Youngstein secured the rights and arranged distribution through Columbia Pictures.
Stanley Kubrick, who was directing a film version of Red Alert, also for Columbia, threatened a plagiarism suit of his own. To settle the matter, Columbia agreed to release the Kubrick film, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, first.
Henry Fonda had starred in Lumet's first two films, 12 Angry Men (1957) and Stage Struck (1958). In the former he had helped Lumet maintain tension in scenes largely set in a single room, which would be a challenge again when Lumet cast him as the President, who plays all of his scenes in a fallout shelter.
The Department of Defense declined to participate in Fail Safe, so shots of planes carrying the bombs had to be taken from archival footage.
by Frank Miller
Fail Safe (1964)
Few directors have provided such a clear, detailed picture of their working methods as Sydney Lumet. His book Making Movies (Knopf, 1995) has become something of a primer for filmmaking, and he amplified the process in interviews with Peter Bogdanovich, printed in the book Who the Devil Made It (Knopf, 1997).
"I work from the inside out," Lumet has said. "What the movie is about will determine how it will be cast, how it will look, how it will be edited, how it will be musically scored, how it will be mixed, how the titles will look, and, with a good studio, how it will be released. What it's about will determine how it is to be made."
Lumet likes to have the entire production team present at the first reading of the script. He then schedules rehearsals for a minimum of two weeks. He started acting in the Yiddish theater at the age of four and appeared on Broadway while still quite young. His method of directing actors owes much to the stage, and with the long rehearsals, he makes it clear he expects the performances to be there on the first couple of takes. Lumet has had great success pulling outstanding work out of his casts, and his ability to foster tight ensemble acting, as he did in Fail-Safe, along with the early support of a major star like Henry Fonda (who appeared in the director's first two theatrical features before taking the role in this movie), has helped him secure some of the top actors in the business for his projects.
"Hank Fonda to me is one of the most underestimated actors," he told Bogdanovich. "If I read one more review that says,"Hank Fonda gave his usual good realistic performance," I'll flip, because this man has such depth and such a sense of truth in his work - extraordinary." In his own book, he also praised Fonda for being "a barometer of truth against which to measure yourself and others."
Lumet is against on-set tension and runaway emotions. He tries to create a very loose set, filled with "jokes and concentration," which he insists go surprisingly well together. His main function in dealing with performance, as he sees it, is to hire the best talents and to respect and encourage the strong wills they display without letting it boil over into ego.
As for the shooting itself, Lumet cuts in the camera. That means before he shoots he knows exactly how each scene or sequence is going to be edited. He films only what's necessary to achieve this and leaves few options for the editing room. As a result, his pictures are generally done quickly and efficiently, at least in shooting and post-production. "I literally cannot see it four different ways," he explained. "[William] Wyler's extraordinary habit of shooting a master [a single shot that covers all the dialogue and action for a given scene] from four different walls and all the subsequent coverage from those masters - I wouldn't know where to put the camera after I've done my first master. Now, that's got its advantages and its disadvantages, but the process of making the dramatic selection in advance is just part of my background. Then, you know, people always say, "Oh, you're so speedy"; if you add the rehearsal time to my shooting days, it's not so speedy."
Lumet must also be credited for his choice of production team, and Fail-Safe, is aided immeasurably by their experience and efforts. Albert Brenner's sets manage to at once enclose the action in almost claustrophobic spaces while giving a sense of the world outside, unaware it's on the brink of destruction. Gerald Hirschfeld's stark black-and-white cinematography heightens the sense of tension and doom, and the rhythm of the film is set at a crackling pace by the editing of Ralph Rosenblum, who became a favorite of another New York-based director, Woody Allen. He edited all but two of Allen's first eight films, from Take the Money and Run (1969) through Interiors (1978).
Images on the screen in the Omaha control room in Fail Safe were created using front projection. This required extra work by the crew to make sure no dust was in the air, as that would have made the projection less believable. For the War Room, the image was rear-projected to avoid those problems.
Interior shots of the bombers' flight crews were made inside a commercial airline simulator. As a result, the three-man crew is shown sitting together. In a real B-58, they would be separated by banks of machinery. The separation also allows each seat to be ejected separately in the event of an emergency.
by Frank Miller & Rob Nixon
Fail Safe (1964)
For the majority of his screen career, Walter Matthau was known primarily as a comedic actor, often partnering with Jack Lemmon in such popular comedies as The Odd Couple (1968) and Grumpy Old Men (1993). Unfortunately, his dramatic roles are not as well known but they include some of his best work, often in menacing and unsympathetic roles such as Charade (1963) and Fail-Safe (1964). In the latter Matthau plays a fanatical scientist who urges the President of the United States to declare war on Russia during an emergency situation. Even though it is only a supporting role, Matthau's performance as the power-hungry reactionary, Groeteschele, sticks in the memory long after the film is over.
Based on the novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, Fail-Safe posed the "what if" scenario of a computer malfunction that falsely signals a nuclear attack on the United States. In retaliation, a squadron of Strategic Air Command bombers are dispatched to Moscow to destroy the Soviet capital. The computer error that triggered the whole incident is eventually discovered but by then it is too late to stop the air strike on Russia.
Fail-Safe, first published in 1962, shared startling similarities to another novel that had a similar plot, Red Alert (1958) by Peter George. In fact, George filed a suit for plagiarism against Burdick and Wheeler, which was eventually settled out of court. It was also rumored that President Johnson did not want to see Fail-Safe turned into a film (Henry Fonda, the star of Fail-Safe, later said he had inside information that the reverse was true). At any rate, Stanley Kubrick purchased the rights to Red Alert and transformed it into his black comedy masterpiece, Dr. Strangelove (1964). Ironically, Columbia Pictures had both Kubrick's film and Fail-Safe in production at the same time and eventually decided to open Kubrick's film first. As a result, the dramatic impact of Fail-Safe was severely diminished by the early release of Kubrick's satire which treated nuclear war as a cruel joke on the human race. Nevertheless, it is interesting to view both films for their treatment of a doomsday situation; in Dr. Strangelove, the disaster is caused by human error but in Fail-Safe, the state of mankind depends on a computer.
Seen today, Fail-Safe stills packs a punch with its realistic settings - the Pentagon's War Conference Room, the SAC headquarters in Omaha, and an underground room in the White House- and excellent ensemble performances including Henry Fonda as the President, Larry Hagman as an anxious Russian interpreter, and Dom DeLuise in a rare dramatic role. Sidney Lumet's direction maintains a nervous tension right up to the downbeat climax, rendered in a series of stunning still black-and-white photographs, in which New York City is annihilated. As a testament to the effectiveness of Fail-Safe, George Clooney, Harvey Keitel, and Richard Dreyfuss starred in Stephen Frears' live television remake of the drama in 2000 which was well received by the critics.
Producer/Director: Sidney Lumet
Screenplay: Walter Bernstein
Production Design: Albert Brenner
Cinematography: Gerald Hirschfeld
Costume Design: Anna Hill Johnstone
Film Editing: Ralph Rosenblum
Principal Cast: Henry Fonda (President), Walter Matthau (Groeteschele), Frank Overton (Gen. Bogan), Edward Binns (Col. Grady), Dan O'Herlihy (Gen. Black), Fritz Weaver (Col. Cascio), Larry Hagman (Buck), Sorrell Booke (Congressman Raskob), Dom DeLuise (Sgt. Collins).
by Jeff Stafford
Fail Safe (1964)
Awards & Honors
Fail Safe was nominated for the UN Award by BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts).
Fail Safe received Laurel Awards nominations for Best Drama and Best Dramatic Performance (Henry Fonda).
Critic Reviews: FAIL SAFE
"...the picture poses a rare problem of showmanship ethics and faith with the public. An earlier Columbia Pictures release, Dr. Strangelove, dealt with precisely the same situation...what remains is how Columbia will exploit and present Fail Safe, which is straight drama as compared with Strangelove being handled in serio-comic fashion. There is the question of whether or not audiences will feel they are looking at the same property, despite its change in treatment -- and having paid good money to do so -- whether they will overlook this fact and accept the new release on its own worth. This is where the question of ethics and studio's faith with its public enter, never before encountered by a studio with two of its own released within a single year. Strangelove was so long in profitable release that the majority of regular picturegoers who might catch Fail Safe very likely saw its predecessor. In any event, Fail Safe deserves to be seen."
"Henry Fonda, without any question, is the best thing in Fail Safe. Everybody else is hopeless or helpless. There is nothing in the script, and there was nothing in the novel, to hint to anyone how to behave, how to think, how to be. Fonda plays himself -- as an old-time star always does anyway -- and gets away with it. Between him and the Albert Brenner sets with electronic maps on which the drama and chase and life and death are reduced to little blips, there is a kind of surface tension to the film."
"Henry Fonda, whether he is a Secretary of State, which he has been twice, or a President, as he is here, makes sane government seem possible and makes credible the melodramatic telephone conversations with the Russian premiere."
- Stanley Kauffman, The New Republic
"Walled up in a white cell somewhere under Washington, President Fonda speaks steadily and carefully in a voice that is intense but curiously flat, as though every word were crushed by a burden of significance too great to bear. And as the voice drones on and on, pleading and reasoning and pleading the figure of the actor slowly swells and charges with tension and importance, the presence of the man becomes the person of mankind and his voice the voice of the species pleading for its life. The whole of history seems consummated in an instant; Armageddon rages in a telephone booth."
"Though I relished the wit and audacity of Dr. Strangelove, I never felt personally threatened; Fail Safe...makes the logic of catastrophe seem much more intimate and irrefutable. Step by plausible step, we are drawn into an apocalyptic experience."
- Kenneth Tynan, Tynan Left and Right
"While portraying the world's precarious position, Fail Safe only furthers the myth and cruel hypocrisy of our nuclear age. The underlying theme of the story is that man was long ago overwhelmed by events; nuclear energy was preordained to become an all-powerful demon. Therefore, no blame may be affixed for man was impotent in the face of an irresistible force. Yet history illustrates warnings were sounded."
- Michael G. Wollscheidt, in Nuclear War Films, Jack G. Shadeen, Ed.
"Eclipsed by its contemporary, Dr Strangelove, Fail Safe eschews the former's black humour and opts for a deadly serious mix of cold-war melodrama and rampant psychosis...Lumet sensibly avoids pyrotechnics in favour of tightening the psychological screws, as Larry Hagman (the president's translator - nice looking kid) does nervy trade-offs on the hot-line, and everyone, from President Fonda down, starts drowning in a sea of cold sweat."
Compiled by Frank Miller