I didn't see FAIL SAFE (1964) when it was first released. After all, I was only eight years old at the time and this tense thriller was definitely not produced by Walt Disney. I finally saw it for the first time a few years ago when we ran it one summer at the Paramount. If I recall correctly, it was on a double bill with either DR. STRANGELOVE (a film with which it shares many similarities) or THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. Either way, it was a night of cinematic paranoia, 1960s style.
I watched FAIL SAFE again last night and was struck by just how bold a film it was. The story line is simple. A U.S. bomber penetrates Soviet Russia airspace by accident and heads towards Moscow to deliver it's payload of nuclear bombs. Nothing can stop the plane from reaching it's target. The President of the U.S. (Henry Fonda), is forced to make a horrific decision. Once Moscow is attacked and destroyed, he will order another U.S. bomber to attack New York City. With two major world cities destroyed, the balance of power will remain intact and a world wide nuclear war will be prevented.
As the U.S. President, Fonda spends all of his screen time in a bunker deep beneath the White House. His only companion is his translator, Buck (Larry Hagman). Fonda stays in contact with the Soviet premier via the "hotline" as the two men discuss the fates of their respective countries and the horrible decisions that must be made. Fonda and Hagman are both outstanding in these scenes.
The rest of the action in FAIL SAFE plays out in three other locations: the Pentagon, the SAC command room in Omaha, Nebraska and the flight deck of the bomber en route to Moscow. At the Pentagon, Professor Groeteschele (Walter Matthau) holds court as a political scientist who is an expert on nuclear war and deterrence. He's the Dr. Strangelove analog in the film and once the malfunction has occurred that sets the plot in motion, he advocates that the bomber be allowed to complete its' mission, confident that with Moscow destroyed, the Soviet Union will stand down and disarm, signalling the end of Communism.
Matthau is opposed by General Black (Dan O'Herlihy,) a U.S. Air Force general who wants nothing to do with thermo-nuclear war. He's our point of entry to the film as we see him haunted by a strange and vivid dream at the very beginning of the film. As fate would have it, he's ordered by the president to pilot the plane that drops the bombs on Manhattan at the end of the film.
In Nebraska, two officers, General Bogan (Frank Overton) and Colonel Cascio (Fritz Weaver, who is win, place and show in the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry look-alike contest), watch the drama play out on the "big board". Cascio eventually cracks under the strain and tries to take command of the operations. Cooler heads prevail.
On the bomber, Ed Binns is Colonel Grady, the pilot who is determined to follow his orders no matter how wrong they are.
FAIL SAFE is a claustrophobic film. There are only a handful of scenes shot in the outdoors, with the majority of the action taking place in these four tightly confined spaces. The black-and-white cinematography is harsh and there's no musical score whatsoever. The story unfolds in a matter-of-fact manner and visually resembles a European art film more than an American made Hollywood movie of the early 1960s.
The Soviets are never seen on camera (except for a photograph). Only their voices are heard. The bombers are clearly stock footage and the destruction of Moscow and Manhattan are never actually shown. We hear the sound of Moscow being incinerated over the phone lines while the end of Manhattan is comprised of a series of abrupt jump cuts showing everyday life in the city while a countdown is overheard.
FAIL SAFE is a sober look at what could happen when military technology goes wrong. It's as timely now as it was forty-nine years ago. A great cast, a terrific script and masterful direction by Sidney Lumet combine to make this one a cold war classic. Highly recommended.