Review: Fail-Safe (1964)


Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe was released in 1964, the same year as Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.  Both films were made not long after the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, which was the closest approach to nuclear war between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. during the Cold War.  It is not surprising then that both films are about an unstoppable chain of events that leads to a nuclear holocaust.  In Dr. Strangelove the sinister plans of an insane mind initiate the terrible chain of events, but the government and military’s safety measures and systems of procedure actually work to prevent a solution once the march to war has begun. 

In Fail-Safe, a computer error is the initial problem, but in a similar way the system prevents an easy solution.  In both, distrust and suspicion between the superpowers further prevents a peaceful resolution.  Despite these similar obstacles, however, the outcome in each film is different.  In Dr. Strangelove we can only assume the end result to be the complete and total destruction of the world.  Fail-Safe is more sparing but still bleak.  The outcome—the destruction of New York City by an American hydrogen bomb—is a sort of self-inflicted wound, a costly sacrifice for the smartening up of the superpowers.  Thus we can see that although their beginnings and ends are different the movies are very similar. The two movies essentially tell the same story, but their tones and forms are drastically different.  This is because Dr. Strangelove is a satire, whereas Fail-Safe is a tragedy.  In Kubrick’s black comedy various aspects of the arms race and military procedure are exaggerated until they appear ridiculous and absurd in order to expose and condemn the folly of the Cold War.  Fail-Safe instead moralizes and is played deadly serious.  Lumet’s tense drama reveals not how ridiculous but rather how precarious and dangerous the Cold War was—how one tiny mistake could bring down the world.

Dr. Strangelove is certainly the more famous and well known of the two films; Fail-Safe is still remembered but rarely seen.  Nevertheless, it is still a fine film—a gripping and frightening thriller as well as a strong warning against the perils of nuclear war and any over-reliance on technology.  With its straightforward manner, Fail-Safe also offers more insight into the time period, in part because it is less timeless than Strangelove.

Sidney Lumet had his start directing television dramas during the early days of that medium, and from that experience he brought a vibrancy and looseness to his filmmaking.  The cinematography in Fail-Safe is energetic and unpolished.  The black and white is high in contrast and the camera movements are dynamic.  The style reminds me of early John Frankenheimer, who also got his start in television, in particular Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962).

8 out of 10

Fail-Safe (USA, 1964)

Directed by Sidney Lumet; screenplay by Walter Bernstein from the novel by Eugene Burdick & Harvey Wheeler; starring Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, and Dan O’Herlihy.