Fail Safe is one of Sidney Lumet’s earlier notable films. He cut his teeth on TV plays for Playhouse 90, Kraft Television Theatre and Studio One, and at that time made the extremely controversial The Sacco-Vanzetti Story for NBC. He started making features alongside the TV plays, and it’s no coincidence that his first feature, the magnificent 12 Angry Men, was an adaptation of a TV play (however, he didn’t direct it on TV.) Lumet mainly made “prestige” films in the late ’50s and early ’60s, often adaptations of famous playwrights such as Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill: The Fugitive Kind, a Tennessee Williams adaptation, is probably the best remembered of these, and was also the only time Lumet worked with Marlon Brando.
It was in 1964/1965 that Lumet really became a force to be reckoned with via a trilogy of films: The Pawnbroker, Fail Safe and The Hill. All are worthy of inclusion when compiling a list of Lumet’s best films. However, it wouldn’t really be until 1973 that Lumet started making the films he is best known for, such as Serpico, Network, Dog Day Afternoon and the overlooked gem, The Offence.
However, back to Fail Safe: it represented the last time Henry Fonda worked with Lumet (Fonda had also starred in 12 Angry Men), and the beginning of Lumet making films that explicitly deal with the “issues of the day,” and this time it’s nuclear war.
The elephant in the room when discussing Fail Safe is a little movie called Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, which essentially has the exact same plot as Fail Safe but sees the inherent absurdity of politicians scrambling to stop nuclear war and plays the situation for blackly comedic effect. Both films are based on novels, and the author of Fail Safe actually ended up with a plagiarism lawsuit from Kubrick and the author of Red Alert (the basis for Dr. Strangelove). They settled eventually. Both novels were serious in nature; Columbia also made Dr. Strangelove and had actually bought Fail Safe to make sure it would came out afterwards.
The film is shot in a fairly simple, almost televisual way but has flashes of European art-house sensibility, especially the opening scene and the apocalyptic finale. It’s almost all studio sets, with freeze-frames of life in New York City at the very end. The only real locations in the film are the White House underground bunker, the Pentagon war conference room, the SAC war room and a bomber cockpit. It has a real sense of claustrophobia, which Dr. Strangelove doesn’t, because Kubrick was working with a much larger canvas. That makes it a real contrast with Kubrick’s film.
Henry Fonda plays the role he was born to play: The President. It was always a joke that if Fonda had run for president in real life, he would get everybody in the United States to vote for him, and there is probably some truth to that joke. He always had an incredibly dignified screen presence, and this is no exception—it’s one of his last really great screen performances. The Boston Strangler and Once Upon a Time in the West are two great later ones from the ’60s, but Fonda was starting to slow down already at this point. Fonda always considered himself a stage actor, and he also played a presidential candidate in 1964 in the hilarious satire The Best Man.
The other cast includes the always excellent Walter Matthau as a Department of Defence advisor Professor Groeteschele, the kind of Dr. Strangelove-esque role. At this point Matthau was still just another character actor, not the comedic actor he would become better known as. In the novel Fail Safe, this character was clearly based on one of the worst living human beings, Henry Kissinger, but that’s not so evident in the film. Dan O’Herlihy, who was an excellent Irish character actor, plays one of the generals. Although he is much younger here, people will recognize him from Twin Peaks, the first two Robocop films and Halloween III: Season of the Witch.
Lumet wasn’t a communist, but was what was known as a “fellow traveller.” He was one of the first directors to start hiring blacklisted writers again. Fail Safe is no exception: Walter Bernstein is the screenwriter, a committed communist and one of first blacklisted writer to get credited work again. That was with Lumet on an earlier film, That Kind of Woman. Bernstein would go on to write one of the few films on the blacklist, The Front, which starred Woody Allen and Zero Mostel. Fail Safe, however, is probably his best script (he also did some uncredited work on The Magnificent Seven and The Train.)
Fail Safe remains one of Lumet’s best films, and is a fascinating movie in its own right, with one of the most startling endings of any film. It also simply holds its own against Dr. Strangelove, which is saying something, Strangelove is the better film, no doubt, but Fail Safe still packs quite a punch over a half-century later.
The disc from Criterion doesn’t have loads of new features, but includes some from the old Sony DVD release, such as a commentary track from Lumet and a retrospective documentary. The new feature on the disc is an interview with J. Hoberman on 1960s nuclear paranoia and Cold War films: sadly, the very Strangelove-influenced theatrical trailer isn’t included. The booklet includes an essay from the writer Bilge Ebiri, who has written for many outlets but can currently be found at Vulture.