In Fail-Safe, director Sidney Lumet creates an incredibly stark tension, evoking a genuine sense of what it must have been like during the Cuban Missile Crisis with the seconds ticking away in dread as the sweat drips on characters foreheads. Lumet stages the film in terms of a series of dramatic peaks each scene begins on a faint hope, tensions build to frightening confrontations and then each is crushed with nightmarish succession. Like Dr Strangelove, Fail-Safe is confined to only three sets. Sidney Lumet creates an enormous tension out of a bare minimalism the most starkly effective scenes occur in the Presidential conference room, which Lumet strips to a single stage consisting of two men, a bare room, a table and a telephone.
Many similarities can be drawn between Fail-Safe and Dr Strangelove. When Stanley Kubrick made Dr Strangelove, he decided that Peter Georges novel Red Alert (1958) was unable to be filmed straight, that the reality of nuclear war was so grim the only way to perceive it was as a black comedy. As some have snidely observed, the material here might have made for an even blacker comedy than Dr Strangelove. Many have jumped on the seemingly absurd ending where President Henry Fonda orders New York City to be nuked in order to demonstrate to the Russians that the bombing of Moscow was an accident. It is certainly hard to believe that a leader could willingly make such a decision. You can just imagine the ending with The President allowing New York City to be nuked in the hands of Stanley Kubrick and enacted by Peter Sellerss buffoonish President the results would have been unwatchably bleak. That said, the ending is one that that Fail-Safe plays with an absolute and shattering dramatic conviction.
The film also offers the end message The producers of the film wish to stress that it is the stated position of the Department of Defense and the US Air Force that a rigidly enforced system of safeguards and controls ensure that occurrences such as those depicted in the story cannot happen. This makes Fail-Safe a film that ultimately opts to back away from its nightmare and leaven it with the reassurance that this is only presenting a fiction. Moreover, it is one where in inserting this comment, the film sides with assurance in the forces of society, that the US Government is sane and stable and would never allow such to happen. The disturbing thing about the Cold War is that the US Government almost did let it happen the Cuban Missile Crisis. By comparison, Dr Strangelove does not see the need to back away; rather it sees the people in power as literally cartoon figures and lunatics, one where the determined realism of the films presentation is all the more frightening because one realizes that this is exactly what could happen. On the other hand, Fail-Safe raises the stark possibility but then runs away from the realism of it and says it could never happen this way. Nevertheless, Fail-Safe is compulsive viewing as an historical artefact, revealing just what a level of hair-trigger tension that US-Soviet relations and the very real possibility of nuclear war existed on during the 1960s.
Fail-Safe is also a film that writes speeches. Actors tend to represent polemic points-of-view and deliver boiler face speeches rather than appear as rounded characters. You cannot though deny that the film marshals an interesting series of debates. The cast are all excellent to a man, each playing what are one-dimensional roles with complete assurance. Henry Fonda does a brilliant job, reflecting the intensity of decision and continued failures with a wearying weight, and a young Larry Hagman is impressively understated opposite him as the Russian interpreter. Walter Matthau, in stark contrast to the curmudgeonly likeable performances he was typecast in after The Odd Couple (1968), makes for an alarmingly cold and clipped character, arguing in favour of the most xenophobic response with a disturbing plausibility. There is an interesting scene between him and Nancy Berg as a woman he meets at a party who gets turned on by the idea of nuclear war.
Fail-Safe was later remade as a tv movie, the also excellent Fail Safe (2000), directed by Stephen Frears and with Richard Dreyfuss as The President alongside an all-star cast. This was also filmed in black-and-white and had the interesting feature of being broadcast live.
Sidney Lumet was a respected director who has been responsible for a number of classic films such as 12 Angry Men (1957), Long Days Journey Into Night (1962), Serpico (1973), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Network (1976). In genre material, Lumet also made the Catholic boys boarding school psycho-thriller Childs Play (1972), the all-Black Wizard of Oz musical updating The Wiz (1978) and the whodunnit parody Deathtrap (1982).