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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