Fail-Safe (1964)    4 Stars

“It will have you sitting on the brink of eternity!”


Fail-Safe (1964)

Director: Sidney Lumet

Cast: Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, Fritz Weaver

Synopsis: American planes are sent to deliver a nuclear attack on Moscow, but it’s a mistake due to an electrical malfunction. Can all-out war be averted?







Fail-Safe suffers from something of a confusing opening ten minutes, introducing too many characters too quickly; however, if you can overcome this weak start I can assure you that you’ll be amply rewarded.

OK, this movie does contain flaws: the stock footage is weak, but it occupies about 20 seconds of screen time, and most viewers don’t know — or care — whether they are looking at a F-104, a B-58 or a UB40 — it’s not important to the plot, and the quality of footage is hardly surprising considering the lack of co-operation the makers received from the US defence department (and isn’t such lack of co-operation nearly always good reason to view the movie in question?); it’s true that the US president wouldn’t be isolated with just a translator for assistance, but this works as a powerful dramatic device, highlighting the pressures and isolation of the man who must make the decisions that will affect the future of all mankind, and who, despite all his advisors, must bear sole responsibility for making that ultimate decision; also, Walter Matthau appears miscast as the hawk-like ‘political scientist’ with a chillingly ruthless streak only because he is now better known as a comedian, whereas in 1964 he was more of a dramatic actor.

All these flaws pale into insignificance, however, in the face of Sidney Lumet’s assured direction. Lumet creates an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia, with the majority of scenes taking place in either small, windowless and sparsely furnished rooms, dark control centres dominated by the screen upon which the drama in the sky is unfolding, and aboard a small, cluttered bomber. Not one single note of music is heard throughout the entire movie. The conversations between the president of the United States and the Soviet premier are tense and believable, an effect achieved largely through the use of Larry Hagman as an interpreter rather than having the two men speak to each other directly. As time passes, and the stakes grow higher, the tension is cranked up to unbearable heights until Henry Fonda, the US President, is forced to make a horrific decision in order to assuage Soviet suspicions.

The movie is also packed with numerous memorable scenes: the opening bullfight; the US control room staff cheering spontaneously when one of their own planes is destroyed by a Soviet fighter plane; the poignant conversation between General Bogan and his Soviet counterpart as they realise all is lost; Matthau’s clinical recommendation that, in the event of a nuclear strike, search efforts should be focused on retrieving corporation records instead of recovering the dead and dying; the superb climax that captures perfectly the sudden senseless obliteration of a city and its people, and irrefutably proves that multi-million dollar special effects aren’t required to make a powerful, deeply affecting, impact on the viewer.

(Reviewed 15th July 2002)