Posted by Greg Ferrara on August 11, 2013
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, 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.
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.
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.
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