Movie Information

Classic Cinema From Around the World will present Fail-Safe at 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 13, at Courtyard Gallery at their new location 109 Roberts St in the Phil Mechanic Building,River Arts District, one floor down. Info: 273-3332.
Genre: Cold War Suspense Drama
Director: Sidney Lumet
Starring: Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, Frank Overton, Edward Binns, Dan O'Helihy
Rated: NR

Think of Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe (1964) as Dr. Strangelove (also 1964) without the laughs. This a very earnest suspenser about a technical glitch causing a bomber to be unstoppably on its way to drop an atomic bomb on Moscow. The only recourse—if it can’t be stopped—is for the U.S. to do likewise to New York City as proof that the attack on the USSR was an accident. It’s that or face all-out nuclear war. Perhaps because it was so serious and depressing—and came out after Strangelove—it was not nearly as big a success and hasn’t become a standard classic. It is, however, very much of its era and not without interest or power.

The strength of the film—apart from Henry Fonda’s performance as the president—is also its greatest weakness. It has a kind of drab look that makes it feel like a television broadcast. That’s exacerbated by the typically graceless Sidney Lumet direction. What this results in is a movie that almost feels real. While that increases the movie’s power, it doesn’t make for very appealing or entertaining viewing. Dr. Strangelove disturbed the viewer and made the viewer think, but it held the viewer by entertaining at the same time. This, on the other hand, tends to be “Where are the razor blades?” depressing. But in its way that may well be a more accurate reflection of what those times felt like than Kubrick’s film. Unfortunately—but probably necessarily—Fail-Safe undermines itself with a disclaimer “assuring” the viewer that what we’ve just seen couldn’t actually happen.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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2 thoughts on “Fail-Safe

  1. DrSerizawa

    It sort of plays out like a Greek tragedy. Everyone marching in a direction that literally no one wants to go but they are unable to do anything to change the course of fate. In that I think it does reflect the time period more accurately. I know that I never thought we would live past the 70s.

  2. Ken Hanke

    In that I think it does reflect the time period more accurately. I know that I never thought we would live past the 70s.

    I never expected to live past childhood based on a child’s view of the early 1960s. I still think the most telling line in any movie of the time is from neither film, but from Panic in Year Zero! (1962) when the vacationing family see the mushroom cloud over what used to be L.A. in the distance and the daughter says, “I thought when they dropped it…” — not if, but when.

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