Daily Archives: August 21, 2021

Fail-Safe (1964)

*. Probably the one thing most people know about Fail-Safe is that it was released the same year as Dr. Strangelove. Oddly enough they were based on different books (Fail-Safe and Red Alert), despite the close similarity of their plots. There was a lawsuit but the upshot was that Columbia bought the distribution rights to Fail-Safe so it was in control of the release of both pictures. Dr. Strangelove came out eight months earlier and Fail-Safe didn’t register.
*. Given their similarities it’s impossible not to draw some comparisons. The usual line is that the one is a comedy and the other plays it straight. This is obviously true, but I think they’re also making different points when it comes to the matter of who’s to blame in such a crisis, and the larger state of affairs that gives rise to it.

*. In Dr. Strangelove it’s a human problem: the people in charge are idiots. They even have funny names. In Fail-Safe, however, the same characters are earnest and meant to be taken seriously. The RAND strategist Herman Kahn was, at least partially, the inspiration for both Dr. Strangelove himself and Professor Groeteschele, but the two characters are miles apart.
*. Another way of looking at the same point is that George C. Scott was cast against type to play the blustering buffoon General Buck Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove, while Walter Matthau, then pretty much unknown but subsequently a comic player, plays his part with an air of cold malice (an air that, in one of the film’s darker turns, gets the girl at the party hot). It’s caricature vs. character, but the point is that its the human element in Dr. Strangelove that leads to disaster. With people like this in positions of power, what do you expect?

*. In Fail-Safe the blame is on the machines that run the system. With a couple of (predictable) breakdowns — a false alarm and Soviet radio jamming — the whole thing goes off the rails. From that point everything goes as planned or programmed. It’s a different sort of nightmare.
*. Judging Fail-Safe on its own, I think we can also stick with the obvious. Director Sidney Lumet’s background in live TV drama was clearly at work, as it comes off very much as a teleplay and is stocked with a lot of the talent he worked with there. It was, in fact, done again in 2000 as a live broadcast on CBS, the first such a production in forty year. George Clooney played the pilot, Richard Dreyfuss was the president and Harvey Keitel was General Black.
*. Of course it was made on the cheap and studio bound. On the commentary track there’s a funny part where Lumet mentions the row of apartments in NYC as being the closest thing he could find to what he thought Omaha, Nebraska might look like. “Closest” being the operative word. The location was on 54th Street in New York, literally across the street from the Fox studio they were filming at.

*. I don’t think the low budget hurts too much. The stock footage of jets that keeps being repeated is clunky, but apparently the government tried to stop them from even getting this much. So it was the best they could do.
*. Sometimes the small-screen aesthetic actually helps. All those giant close-ups play better on TV. And along with the black-and-white photography it has even more of a sense of a period piece.
*. There’s no musical score because Lumet thought it would destroy the sense of reality. He thought a score would be Mickey Mouse, just stressing what’s already there, with the general principle being that music should only perform a function that can’t be performed any other way. Even as a general principle I’m not sure how much I agree with this. Sometimes a score can be distracting or take away from the effect a film is intent on making, but its absence here just makes it seem even more like a television drama. Which is something other, more artificial, than a news report.
*. The idea of trading Moscow for New York City strikes me as not fair, and improbable anyway. Couldn’t the president have started by offering Omaha?
*. I think it still rates as a pretty good movie, though it continues to be overshadowed by Dr. Strangelove, and not without reason. I do think it plays as being more a film of its time though. We’ve learned to stop worrying and love the apocalypse, at least if Hollywood blockbusters tell us anything. Things are still in the saddle, perhaps more than ever, but haven’t our idiots gotten even worse?