Published on November 27th, 2007 | by Chris1
If you think living in today's terrified "war on terror" world is, well, terrifying. I can only imagine what it must've been like to live in the shadow of constant fear of impending nuclear doom. And really the world was closer to total obliteration then than any single terrorist event that could happen now.
1964's Fail Safe is based on the Burdick-Wheeler Novel of the same name, and explores that terror in great detail. Really this is a story about the fallibility of both man and machine, that if left unchecked can have disastrous consequences. Additionally its a great example of 60's experimental film making.
The story if you're not familiar with it goes something like this. While performing routine exercises in response to various unidentified threats, one bomber group doesn't get the signal that it's "not for real" and continues on towards its ultimate goal: The destruction of Moscow. From there everyone from the pilot's wife to the President of the United States (Henry Fonda) tries everything within their power to stop a chain of events that only leads to disaster.
In one respect the story is very similar to the later War Games. Due to some technical glitches in the bomber group's radios, caused by Soviet radio interference, they don't get the signal to return to business as usual. The classic failed-machine scenario. After that first event we bear witness to more technology that is supposed to help in these situations cause even more problems, such as the radar decoys and formations.
In another aspect we are shown the ultimate point of failure when it comes to warfare of any kind, the human factor. Once the "Fail-safe" point is crossed, the bomber group has been told to ignore any further orders from anyone, which they do with machine-like consistency. Trust, or rather a lack thereof is the main driving force behind this failure of the human element, as neither side seems to want to believe the other even in the face of impending doom.
The final result is a strange decision on behalf of the president, and addresses the question of "what is fair" when it comes to war. Where do we draw the line at acceptable losses? This question comes up early on in the film by the consultant Groeteschele (Walter Matthau.)
You'll also find yourself amazed that so much tension and drama can be drawn from a set of talking heads and two relatively static sets: The Offutt AFB war room and the President's Bunker. There really isn't any soundtrack to speak of, and that only adds to the level of tension, as there's nothing else to focus on but the actor's faces and their reactions. The entire film is shot in an incredibly harsh, almost noir style with lots of distinct shadows and simplistic set design. Again, it draws your attention to the actors and their plight.
The whole Gen. Black (Dan O'Herlihy) / Matador thing which opens the film, and is touched upon at the end is a bit of a mystery. I haven't read the book in ages so I don't remember what that is all about, but it doesn't really fit into things at all.
I can't say enough good things about this picture. A lot of the pontification at the beginning with Groeteschele and Black and the rest of the generals seems to get a little thick, but really it sets the stage for the battle which has yet to be played out, as you'll find yourself asking the same questions.
There are a lot more familiar faces as well, from the nervous translator Buck (Larry Hagman) to the troubled and defiant Col. Cascio (Fritz Weaver), the steadfast Gen. Bogan (Frank Overton) and even the trapped Congressman Raskob, played by Sorrell Booke, who you'd later come to know as "Boss" Hogg(!)....
Fail Safe is one of those pictures that define an era. In this case, the cold-war paranoia and panic of the early 1960's. It's a great look into the mindset of the day, and is an excellent picture in itself.
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One of the greatest anti-war thrillers ever, FAIL-SAFE stars Henry Fonda, Walter Mathau, Dan O'Herlihy, Larry Hagman and Fritz Weaver (in his film debut) as a group of military men on the verge of World War III...
DVD InformationBinding: DVD
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Audience Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Manufacturer: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Original Release Date:
- Fritz Weaver
- Henry Fonda
- Dan O'Herlihy
- Larry Hagman
- Walter Matthau
- Factory sealed DVD
A Riveting - And Still Very Relevant - Cautionary Tale,
This review is from: Fail-Safe (DVD)As does his big-screen debut, "12 Angry Men" (1957), Sidney Lumet's "Fail-Safe" continues to speak volumes today -- a half-century after its release.
As in 1957, Lumet's use of relatively spartan sets and modest effects work to this film's advantage (as does the total absence of music); combined with Gerald Hirschfeld's stark B & W cinematography and dramatic camera work - and Ralph Rosenblum's adroit editing - the often claustrophobic tension is synergistically heightened. Minor technical flaws (as in the brief stock footage) can be overlooked, as they do not compromise the storyline.
Lumet employed two fine actors from his 1957 film, Henry Fonda & Edward Binns, in a superb ensemble cast.
Fonda's portrayal is the very model for what many expect an American president to be; his distinctive voice, mannerisms and cool decisive nature define the character.
Dan O'Herlihey imbues Gen. Black with the knowing resignation of one trapped in a dilemma... Read more
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
A Masterpiece of B&W Cinematography on DVD,
This review is from: Fail-Safe (DVD)Although the keepcase for the Fail-safe Special Edition is colorized, the film is the original B&W.
Any student or fan of B&W film should watch Fail-Safe for the pure art of the cinematography. On an HD system the DVD transfer appears noir grainy, but the images are sharp, the shadows dramatic, the lighting incredible. The closeups are practically Blu-ray crisp, pulling your eye to facial detail to emphasize the staggering stress of the characters, a stress beautifully portrayed.
Additionally, the 2 channel monographic soundtrack has an aged feel. The lack of a music score, the pace of the dialogue, and the frame composition in B&W all magnify the emotional power and personal drama of the film, emphasizing a familiar fear for anyone who was living during the height of the Cold War. The full-screen 1.85:1 widescreen format also truly enhances the viewing experience.
Purchase, ponder, enjoy, discuss. Although the film has an early 60's historical... Read more
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Brilliant Piece of Film,
This review is from: Fail-Safe (DVD)I recall watching this as a teenager during what to me seemed to be the height of the Cold War, sometime around the time The Day After aired in the 1980s. I remember it vividly but upon watching something again so many years later I always prepare myself to be disappointed - but there was no need for that preparation. I was very pleased that this movie was every bit as good as I remembered it. The cast is just stellar and the direction tight and well-done. I especially enjoyed Fonda's performance as the President (who wouldn't have voted for this guy - he just looks like a President) and Larry Hagman's depiction of the translator oddly named just "Buck". The story itself is chilling and (at the time) quite plausible. The effects leave a lot to be desired even for 1964 but as the director's commentary explains the military did not want this film made and prevented the producers from obtaining any accurate footage of planes or the actual locations (White House, SAC headquarters,... Read more
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Summary: Fail Safe is one of those pictures that define an era. In this case, the cold-war paranoia and panic of the early 1960's. It's a great look into the mindset of the day, and is an excellent picture in itself.