Fail Safe and the Fear of Losing it All

When I was first reading about movies, back in the seventies, that I hadn’t seen yet (which were many), I let film books be my critical guide.  After all, with no videos or cable or DVDs, I had no choice but to take the word of the film books as to what was worthwhile and what was not.  Later, when I ended up watching all those movies (or, at least, quite a few of them) I discovered the film books weren’t the best guide after all.  Often, movies they hadn’t mentioned at all turned out to be some of the best I’d ever seen and movies they trumpeted turned out to be less than thrilling.  Of course, that’s their job, to codify and organize.  As a result, there’s not a lot of room for detailed analysis, just “this movie’s better than this one.”  One of those movies, Fail Safe, always got the short end of the stick because it was unfairly matched up against Stanley Kubrick’s rightly celebrated masterpiece, Dr. Strangelove.  But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have merit on its own.

Fail Safe 001

Fail Safe, which plays tonight as a part of Henry Fonda’s day here on TCM, is a cold war thriller that plays off of the fears of the day of a nuclear war with the old Soviet Union, in which a bomber accidentally drops the big one on Moscow.  Those fears were palpable all the way through the eighties, which led to movies like The Day After, Testament and WarGames, all about the onset, aftermath or fear of starting a nuclear war.  Very few movies dealt with this fear in a comedic or satiric way and when they did, never succeeded quite like Dr. Strangelove.  And when a movie like Strangelove is released in the same year as another movie about nuclear war taking the whole thing with absolute and earnest seriousness, the natural inclination is to deride the serious one as stodgy and dull.   What should happen, of course, is the two shouldn’t be compared to each other at all but taken on their own terms.  And Fail Safe, taken on its own terms, has a lot to recommend it.

Before I get into that, I’ll get what’s not commendable about it out of the way.  The whole psycho-babble subplot of Dan O’Herlihy and his matador dreams and the pained symbolism that, unfortunately, ends the movie, not only doesn’t work but seriously detracts from the film.  [SPOILER ALERT]  The closing moments with O’Herlihy crying out, “I am the matador!” as he kills himself before nuking New York City have never, ever played well for me.   What would have been ten times more chilling, and more appropriate to the premise, would be the Soviets sending a bomber flying around its fail safe point above the arctic circle to bomb New York with an assurance from the president that there would be no interference.  Then, he sits there and waits while a Soviet bomber heads in, unchallenged to destroy the city.   But that didn’t happen and the ending we have is, well, kind of hokey.  [END SPOILER]  

The good stuff about the film is, however, plenty.  And the first and foremost thing is Sidney Lumet’s expert direction.  It’s not every director who understands how to let a scene play out and Lumet does great work here, especially in the tense interpretation scenes with the president and his translator, knowing when to take the camera back, when to pull it in and when to lock it onto the face of the president or the translator.  The whole film is a challenge for a director because it doesn’t involve a lot of action (or any at all, really), just a lot of talking.  Keeping his camera neither static nor frenetic, Lumet makes the film taut and tense with the right series of shots and edits that keep the viewer inside the scene, almost like a fly on the wall.

Fail Safe 002

And the actors are uniformly good, even O’Herlihy,  looking sufficiently drained and despondent throughout and managing those hokey lines very well despite their obvious staginess.   Other actors, in small parts, from Fritz Weaver to Dom DeLuise, do well with bit roles that nevertheless add much to the final film.   And Walter Matthau, playing the hawkish Professor Groeteschele, who thinks we should grab the opportunity of our mistake and wipe the Soviet Union off the map while we can, is unnerving in his smug righteousness and elite sense of intellectual superiority.

But the film belongs to Henry Fonda and Larry Hagman in a great dual performance where one plays off the other.  Henry Fonda plays the president of the United States and when the alert goes out that a bomber group is on its way to destroy Moscow, thus most likely setting off an all-out nuclear war, the president needs to talk with the Soviet Premier and quick.   When he does, he needs a translator, played by Larry Hagman, who can not only tell him what the exact words are the Premier is speaking but what the tone means, what the pauses and word choices reflect.   These scenes, in which the president and Soviet Premier have to work out a plan for what will happen, are easily the most tense in the movie and their conclusion is simply chilling.  Never before has a mechanical ring tone been so ominous and spine-tingling.

This was the first film where audiences got to really see what Larry Hagman could do.  He’d done plenty of small parts on tv as well as two other movies but this was the big time.   Hagman plays the role as nervous and anxiety ridden at first until calmed down by the president, played by Henry Fonda in a performance where there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye.  Fonda’s president has to calm down the translator and the Soviet Premier, be hopeful, firm and resigned, all in short order and plays it convincingly enough that you really believe he’s just made the most stomach churning decision in the history of the world when he makes it.    Hagman and Fonda give a great unified performance and it makes the whole film worthwhile.

Fail Safe 003

There really is a lot to like about Fail Safe and it should have a better reputation than it does (not that is has a bad reputation by any means, but it could be better).  It has great direction by Sidney Lumet and several excellent performances, anchored by the great dual performance at its center, the one between Fonda and Hagman.   It’s a thriller about a long past time but the fears it plays into are primordial and still work to chill us.  The fear that, at any moment, it could all be gone, and us with it.

37 Responses Fail Safe and the Fear of Losing it All
Posted By Arthur : August 11, 2013 11:49 am

Thanks for shedding so much light on one of my favorite films.

However, I actually appreciated the part with the bullfight. Lumet presents, in rapid fire succession, brief vignettes that sharply illuminate the character and motivation of four of the key players: the general, the professor, the rebellious colonel and the bomber pilot.

Like Citizen Kane, it presents a curious riddle not solved until the end. Note how the title of the film, FAIL SAFE, suddenly flashes on the screen in shocking bold capital letters, as was done in Citizen Kane. And, yes, it may have been “psycho babble” but wasn’t there a bit of that in all four initial setup pieces?

In a film that is relentlessly about “rational” decision-making, it provides a purely symbolic beginning and end. In the opening we see the general flying over the Manhattan skyline in a flimsy one-seater. It ends with him again flying over the NYC skyline this time in a bomber to obliterate it.

The intelligence of the makers, and the audience, of this film is astounding. Movies like this and Dr. Strangelove and pictures like A Face in the Crowd and Ace in the Hole leave me cold to current theatrical releases. I wholeheartedly agree that it deserves more attention. Thank you, and TCM, for giving it the spotlight it justly deserves.

Posted By Gene : August 11, 2013 12:35 pm

Between Lumet’s film and Kubrick’s, I would choose Fail Safe. Strangelove never quite kept my attention. I’m not saying it’s a bad movie (far from it), it simply does little for me (unlike other Kubrick films). Lumet was a masterful director and an actor’s director which I think gives so many of his films depth. The bleak, austere settings incline to remind me of many a Bergman film and add to the severity of the proceedings. Thanks Greg for illuminating this film which does deserve greater attention.

Posted By jojo : August 11, 2013 12:49 pm

The legend of Fail-Safe was that audiences couldn’t buy into it’s “absolute and earnest seriousness” after Strangelove’s presentation of roughly the same material.

The part I take issue with is “absolute and earnest seriousness.” Strangelove jabs you in the ribs about every three minutes while screaming “get it?” directly into your ear canal.

Fail-Safe is funny in a much darker, more complicated fashion. It’s funny in the way William Burroughs is funny (which a few dashes of Samuel Beckett). At first glance, it just seems oppressive and nightmarish, which it is, but taking it all to inky black (in both content and photography), absurd extents. These powerful men — wrestling with machinery they created but don’t fully grasp, wrestling to communicate complex ideals but unable to get the simplest across, trying to pin a opponent that isn’t there, rationalize the irrational, win a game where there are only degrees of losing.

You could say that Strangelove addresses all of these same themes, which it does. But Kubrick comes to you with a rubber nose and floppy shoes, while Lumet comes with just an undertaker’s smile.

Posted By Doug : August 11, 2013 1:07 pm

“Fail Safe” is an ironic title; backwards it could be “Safe? Fail.”You really believe that Fonda could be a President dealing with such momentous problems.
He is as impressive in this movie as in “The Best Man” from the same year.
I don’t know if it is fair or not, but I think Lumet deserves the credit for drawing such a fine performance out of Larry Hagman. I can’t recall Hagman ever impressing me in another role-most “TV acting” is shallow, depending on caricature.
A fine movie, and it’s great that there is a “Henry Fonda Day” at TCM. If he had stopped acting after “The Grapes Of Wrath” he would STILL deserve such a day!

Posted By Arthur : August 11, 2013 1:08 pm

My understanding is that both films are based on the same book, Red Alert. I mistakenly had thought that Fail Ssfe came out first. And if it had, it would probably not have been overshadowed by Strangelove. But I agree with Greg. The films really should not be compared. They are both great, but in different ways.

Posted By Tom Herling : August 11, 2013 1:53 pm

Sidney Lumet was terrific in creating a sense of drama even in a limited space. One technique, which he used in “12 Angry Men,” (and if I’m not mistaken, later in “The Hill”) was to gradually go from a wide angle lens to a narrower one as the film progresses, compressing the size of the space in which the action takes place and giving a sense of increasing claustrophobia.

One other thing I really like about “Fail Safe” is that there’s no musical score, something I wish more directors would do.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 11, 2013 2:31 pm

Arthur, of course, it’s just my opinion but still, I was probably being a bit too hard on it. I just felt keeping the film free of any psychological symbolism would make it better and the beginning and ending don’t really appeal to me. However, I still find the opening title card announcing it’s New York, early morning, and then you see a bullfighter in Spain in the afternoon. That’s actually pretty brilliant. It’s a very sly way to announce to the audience that you’re in the middle of a dream.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 11, 2013 2:33 pm

Gene, I love thrillers. Hell, I’ve written about them on here more than a few times already and did a whole post a couple of years ago here about sixties and seventies thrillers so, while I may think Strangelove is the better film in a purely apples/oranges way, I have seen Fail Safe more because it’s such a great thriller. It’s one of the best thrillers of the sixties, in fact.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 11, 2013 2:37 pm

Jojo, I agree, there’s a lot more at work with Fail Safe than meets the eye. You could say that it’s more absurd watching men deal with this through rational arguments than through comedy because the comedy is the very fact that anyone is trying to have a rational argument about dropping a bomb on New York City to avoid a nuclear war in which New York City would get bombed. And in that absurdity comes a chilling aura that Strangelove doesn’t have.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 11, 2013 2:40 pm

Doug, I haven’t really seen a lot of Larry Hagman on film outside of this and, say, S.O.B., in which he was very funny but in a purely throwaway bit role. I’ve mainly seen him on tv and here he really is a revelation. I’m sure Lumet did what any great acting director does, which is work with the actor to get their talents to fit the character and the film and Lumet pulled a terrific performance out of him.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 11, 2013 2:41 pm

Tom, that sense of quiet that runs through the whole movie is not only effective in its own right but makes the piercing phone tone absolutely goose-bump forming. That moment in the film is such a brilliant way of letting the audience know what happened, so much more than a special effects sequence where we see the bomb go off.

Posted By Murphy’s Law : August 11, 2013 3:14 pm

The original novel is also called “Fail Safe” and is by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler. It’s been a long time since I read it, but I seem to remember the movie following it closely.

Posted By Emgee : August 11, 2013 3:24 pm

I read that Lumet almost begged Kubrick to release Strangelove after Fail Safe, but that he refused.

I’ve never seen Fail Safe; maybe it’s about time i did.
Your article sure helped.

Posted By Anonymous : August 11, 2013 6:30 pm

I think you underestimate Larry Hagman. I am pretty sure you haven’t seen some of his other performances on film. His performance in THE GROUP is frightening, spellbinding, foolish and in the end, pathetic. It’s a tremendous performance in an unsympathetic role. He almost walks away with the movie, though it’s got a great cast of excellent actresses.

him a chance, don’t rely on old reruns of I DREAM OF JEANNIE or DALLAS to inform your judgement. I prefer to think of him as an actor whose talent for serious drama was seriously under-appreciated and under-used.

Posted By Gene : August 11, 2013 7:23 pm

Doug – I think you bring up an interesting point about Hagman. First off, a number of actors are never given much chance at meaty roles. Secondly, I think a lot of great performances on film are more than just the actor’s brilliance but also the brilliance of both a great director and film editor. Hagman got stuck in his I Dream of Jeannie mode (even though he portrayed many shady characters on episodic TV – there was still the Major Nelson thing going on there in a way). Of course, that worked out well for him on Dallas. With this film we have a brilliant director who knew how to push the envelope and get a great performance.

Posted By DevlinCarnate : August 11, 2013 8:03 pm

having grown up in the era of “duck and cover” during our quarterly drills ,i can safely say that Dr.Strangelove gives me more consistent chuckles than any film beside Night at the Opera,and because of it,i’m a little cynical of the heavy handed films,we’re all still standing….” Okay. I’m gonna get your money for ya. But if you don’t get the President of the United States on that phone, you know what’s gonna happen to you?You’re gonna have to answer to the Coca-Cola company”…far more frightening than a nuclear attack ;)

Posted By Joe Dante : August 11, 2013 8:48 pm

One of my favorite movies, as demonstrated here:

Posted By Doug : August 11, 2013 11:09 pm

I also saw Hagman in “Mother, Jugs and Speed” with Bill Cosby, Raquel Welch and Harvey Keitel. He played a jerk and was very believable in the part. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an episode of “Dallas”-I was on board ship when it began, so no TV- I missed out on all the “J.R. mania”. I’m more of a comedy guy.

Posted By Doug : August 11, 2013 11:58 pm

Thank you, Mr. Dante for the link to TFH/Fail Safe. It is a great movie, and I’m glad that there is love for both “Fail Safe” and “Dr. Strangelove” here at Morlocks.

Posted By Tom Herling : August 12, 2013 12:49 am

Having just watched the film again, it struck me that Lumet likely learned to create such dramatic effects from having worked for many years in the confined spaces of live TV drama. The focus is primarily on actors’ faces, and quite effectively so. I think John Frankenheimer, another live TV veteran, shows a similar talent in films such as “Seven Days in May.”

Posted By swac44 : August 13, 2013 4:53 pm

I love that in Fail Safe, Fonda is billed only as “The President”. Sort of like 15 years later when he turned up in the disaster stinker Meteor where he plays….”The President”.

And speaking of actors known mostly for TV work, keep an eye out for Sorrell “Boss Hogg” Booke as a congressman; he was also in Up the Down Staircase, What’s Up Doc?, Slaughterhouse Five and The Iceman Cometh before getting permanently branded upon our brain as the man who couldn’t tame those Duke boys.

Posted By Arthur : August 13, 2013 5:25 pm

Swac44, wasn’t that Dom De Luise as the stammering sergeant who gave up the missile code when the rebellious colonel refued to? And I swear that looks like Dennis Quaid in the Scramble Room waiting to take off early in the film reading a comic book when the old pilot decries the lack of emotion in the young airmen.

Posted By Tom Herling : August 13, 2013 5:38 pm

Here’s a bit of trivia: Actor Michael Badalucco is one of the children seen in the file on Marshal Koniev that Gen. Bogen (Frank Overton) leafs through as he’s speaking to Koniev. Badalucco revealed this at a talk about his career at his alma Mater, SUNY-New Paltz. His father was a film set carpenter on this picture.

Posted By Arthur : August 13, 2013 5:47 pm

What has always struck me about FAIL SAFE, STRANGELOVE, WAR GAMES, et. al., is the idea that there are two War Rooms one in the US and one in Russia, playing a never-ending game of Chess (or is it Chicken?) while the continuity of humanity hangs in the balance. Is that why the 1972 chess tournament between Fischer and Spassky hit such a responsive cord?

Posted By Richard Brandt : August 13, 2013 9:26 pm

One of SCTV’s movie parodies naturally had “and Henry Fonda as The President.”

Hagman also was effective in a supporting role in HARRY AND TONTO.

Posted By Mike Doran : August 14, 2013 12:21 pm

About the books:

The novels FAIL-SAFE by Wheeler and Burdick, and RED ALERT by Peter George/Bryant (I don’t know which is the real name) came out almost simultaneously a couple of years before the movies wee made. There were threats of plaigiarism suits by both sides when FAIL-SAFE became a best-seller and RED ALERT didn’t. The paperbacks were side by side in drugstores everywhere, each claiming to be The Original.

When the movies came calling, FAIL-SAFE scored the big deal for Columbia and Sidney Lumet. Stanley Kubrick picked up RED ALERT at a bargain price and produced it as an independent, turning it into the farcical DR. STRANGELOVE.

Kubrick’s key move was to turn STRANGELOVE into The Peter Sellers Show, with Sellers in multiple roles; FAIL-SAFE, played straight, had no comparable hook.

Columbia picked up STRANGELOVE for distribution, with the proviso that it would be released before FAIL-SAFE, thus dooming the latter to the tail end.

Some feel that if the two films had been released the other way around, FAIL-SAFE would have wound up the instant classic, but that’s just spec at best.

The important thing now is that FAIL-SAFE holds up today far better than STRANGELOVE.

The only thing I’d change about FAIL-SAFE is the casting:
Dan O’Herlihy and Walter Matthau should each be playing the other’s part.
Groteschele ought to played with icy disdain for his fellows, and that was something O’Herlihy did better than anybody; while General Black was a burnout (or close to it), and Matthau (before he became a comedy specialist) would have been the obvious choice for that.

As to STRANGELOVE, what critics loved about it then is exactly what I don’t like about it now: the broad farcical playing to a “sophisticated” anti-political and -military audience.
A Sixties “hip” crowd could watch STRANGELOVE and feel “superior” to the foolish characters on screen – knowing that they weren’t that stupid, vain, and egotistical.
FAIL-SAFE didn’t let its audience off the hook like that – all the characters we saw there were human, not that different from us. If we’d had those choices to make, what would we do differently?
That is why FAIL-SAFE was better than STRANGELOVE in ’63, even though no critic realized it then.
– And it’s why FAIL-SAFE is still better than STRANGELOVE today, whether any “critic” wants to admit it or not.

Posted By Arthur : August 14, 2013 1:54 pm

Mike, thanks for clearing up my confusion about the source material.

There were two popular novels on the same topic in the ’70s, The Tower and The Glass Inferno, but they were amicably combined as the basis for the film, The Towering Inferno.

Posted By Gene : August 14, 2013 8:55 pm

Mike Doran – very well put. Thank you.

Posted By Cj : August 14, 2013 10:55 pm

Fail Safe has always been a favorite. Having watched the Cuban Missle Crisis unfold on TV in the 60′s gave me a healthy regard for what might have been.

Posted By robbushblog : August 15, 2013 1:17 pm

Mike Doran- I agree. Very well put. I am not a big fan of Strangelove for the reasons you mentioned. While parts of it are funny, especially the line about fighting in the war room, it does play exactly as you stated. I also think that Kubrick could have reined Sellers in just a bit. He seemed overindulgent in spots.

I really like Fail Safe though. And I also think that Lumet was so good at building suspense and the feeling of claustrophobia due to his TV work, just like Frankenheimer. Why were they so much more capable of making good political thrillers back in the 60′s and 70′s than they are today?

Posted By Arthur : August 15, 2013 2:45 pm

Because the public is less intelligent or the people deciding what gets made think the public is less intelligen,t or both.

Posted By robbushblog : August 15, 2013 2:50 pm

I don’t know if it’s lack of intelligence or just laziness. I’m physically lazy, but not intellectually lazy when it comes to watching TV and movies. If you look at most of the popular movies and TV shows these days, they do not require much thinking. I know plenty of intelligent people who watch the stupidest junk imaginable.

Posted By Doug : August 15, 2013 11:31 pm

I like “Strangelove” just fine; if it is superior or inferior to Fail Safe is a matter of opinion.
robbushblog-I’ve been without satellite or cable for a year now. I watch network TV only if a ball game is on. Instead, I’ve gone ‘off the grid’ for my viewing, buying DVDs and Blu-Ray and it’s kind of cool. I wish I had TCM, of course, but when I had DirecTV
I watched a lot of JUNK, just as you said. Storage Wars, Celebrity Ghost Stories and way too much of the Cooking Channel.
Junk. Now I’m more selective, and if I ever have time to watch all the stuff I’ve bought, I’m going to enjoy it.

Posted By Mike Doran : August 16, 2013 11:50 am


I think there’s a reason why political thrillers were better in the ’60s/’70s then they are now.
That past time was far less agenda-driven than the present.
Today, Sidney Lumet would have had to battle to portray the unseen Soviet generals in their war room as everymen, not really different than their counterparts in Omaha.
Lumet used one of the best everyman actors of that time, Frank Overton, as the SAC commander; his is the key performance of the film,in my view.
Similarly, Ed Binns, another everyman, is the pilot of the last fighter plane. In the opening, he’s the one who says that he prefers the human factor in decision-making – but in the end he’s the one who believes the wrong orders and goes through with the mission.
Even the “bad guys”, Groteschele and Col. Cascio, aren’t cardboard villains: the professor is a hardliner and the colonel is paranoiac, but neither is s stock villain.
No heroes, no villains – just people in an impossible situation.
And the overriding question – what would you do?
Therein lies Fail-Safe‘s timelessness – and its greatness.

Posted By Arthur : August 16, 2013 7:51 pm

Mike, I agree. Lumet developed his characters and simultaneously moved along the plot rapidly and concisely.

Posted By Jim : August 21, 2013 12:27 pm

Two notes about this great film: When Col. Grady (portrayed by Edward Binns) passes the Fail-Safe point and his wife (Janet Ward) radios him to tell him to turn back…it’s a mistake…nothing is wrong…he follows orders, ignores his wife’s plea and shuts off the radio. For me, one of the most harrowing scenes in the film. Second – has anyone noticed there is no music in the entire film?

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 21, 2013 1:00 pm

Yeah, I love that scene, too. Talk about a well-trained pilot! I’ve often thought if I was in that situation then I’d quickly ask her a couple of things that only she would know. Truly private things that only the two of us share. If she gave the wrong answer, I’d know it was the enemy controlling her and proceed. If she gave the right answer, I’d turn the plane around.

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